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'MIB 3' Way Behind 'Men in Black,' MIB2: Why So Disappointing?

Will Smith Men in Black III MIB 3 Emma Thompson
MIB 3 with Emma Thompson, Will Smith

May 28

Men in Black III, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, opened with “solid,” though hardly outstanding figures at the North American box office this weekend. I have “solid” in quotes because for an eagerly anticipated, highly expensive 3D movie at 4,248 locations, $55 million in three days (including a Sunday preceding a holiday) and $70 millionh in four days (Memorial Day is a major US holiday) simply isn't good enough. Not even close.

Box-office prognosticators were expecting the third Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones pairing to bring in $80m-90 million. The above figures, studio estimates found at Box Office Mojo, fell way below expectations.

If Sony Pictures is to recover its Men in Black 3 investment – anywhere between $225m-$300m, plus another $100m-$150 million marketing / distribution expenses – that will be on account of MIB3's popularity abroad, where the film has raked in an estimated $132 million. Even then, the latest Smith-Jones pairing has a long box office road to travel, as on average studios get about 50-55 percent of a film's domestic gross and 40 percent of the overseas tally.

Directed by Men in Black / Men in Black II's Barry Sonnenfeld, MIB3's big feat at the domestic box office this weekend wasn't its grosses, but the fact that it managed to dethrone Joss Whedon / Chris Evans / Scarlett Johansson's The Avengers, which remained at the top for three consecutive weekends. Directed by Rupert Sanders, and starring Kristen Stewart, The Avengers' Chris Hemsworth, and Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman opens next weekend. We'll soon find out if Men in Black 3 will manage to stay on top for more than one single weekend.

MEN IN BLACK 3 way behind its two predecessors

Now, it would be ludicrous to say that MIB3 opened on a par with the two previous Men in Black movies. True, Men in Black took in $69 million after four days at 3,020 sites, including $4.81 million from Tuesday evening screenings (MIB opened on Wed., July 2, 1997), while Men in Black II brought in $73.43 million in its first four days at 3,557 locations (MIB2 opened on Wed., July 3, 2002). However, in 2012 dollars, MIB opened with approximately $117 million while MIB2 debuted with approx. $99 million.

Another minor detail: Neither previous MIB movie was in 3D, which can increase ticket costs by up to 45 percent. A third minor detail: Men in Black's reported budget was $90 million (approx. $129 million today); Men in Black II's was $140 million (approx. $179 million today). As mentioned above, Men in Black III's production budget hovered anywhere between $225m-$300 million.

Emma Thompson, Will Smith / Men in Black 3 photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.

Will Smith MIB3 Men in Black 3
MIB3: Will Smith, Men in Black 3

Why the underwhelming (estimated) Men in Black 3 opening-weekend performance at the domestic box-office? Barry Sonnenfeld's film has an acceptable 73 percent approval rating among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics (with a so-so average rating of 6.3/10). In any case, movies such as Men in Black 3 are review-proof because people who go to big action / horror / trademarked movies / franchises on the first weekend usually don't bother reading reviews.

What then? Well, as mentioned in a previous article, one possibility is that Will Smith hasn't made a movie in four years. And Smith's pre-MIB3 release, the Gabriele Muccino-directed $55 million-budgeted Seven Pounds, was a major box office disappointment, grossing only $69.95 million in North America. (Internationally, Seven Pounds performed better – though without reaching blockbuster status: $98.21m.)

Not helping matters is that Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones (Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive, 1993) hasn't had a box office hit of his own since Men in Black II a full decade ago. (Captain America: The First Avenger and No Country for Old Men weren't “Tommy Lee Jones movies.”) Jones' highest-grossing vehicle since Men in Black II was The Hunted, a William Friedkin-directed, $55 million-budgeted 2003 release that took in a paltry $34.24 million domestically and a dismal $11.25 million internationally.

Men in Black III: After long hiatus

And finally, as mentioned above, the previous Men in Black movie was released ten years ago. Apart from something as iconic as Star Wars, which was resurrected in the late '90s, it's difficult to whip up interest for a long-dormant movie franchise.

Imagine if the gap between, say, the second and third Twilight movies, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, had been ten years. However popular Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner may be with the Twilight crowd, there's a good chance that young fans of the series would have outgrown it, while potential new ones might never have heard of either Edward, Bella, and Jacob, or the trio of stars who brought them to life.

Indeed, even Star Wars would most likely have faced attendance issues had Return of the Jedi opened a full decade after The Empire Strikes Back.

Ultimately, it's worth remembering that as per the Motion Picture Association of America, approximately 30 percent of North America's “frequent” moviegoers are 17 and under. Ten years can represent, quite literally, a lifetime.

Now, what about Brad Bird / Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol? I'd say that the success of Cruise's fourth Mission: Impossible movie has less to do with the franchise itself than with the fact that MI4 earned excellent early buzz and highly enthusiastic notices: 97 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with a 7.6/10 average. That has hardly been the case with MIB3.

In addition to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black 3 features Oscar nominee Josh Brolin (Milk), two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Best Actress for Howards End, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility), Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Nicole Scherzinger, Michael Chemus, and Alice Eve. Etan Coen (not to be confused with the Coen brothers' Ethan Coen) wrote the MIB3 screenplay.

Will Smith / Men in Black 3 photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.

Edward Norton Moonrise Kingdom scoutmasterWes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (photo, Edward Norton), which opened the Cannes Film Festival about ten days ago, debuted at four North American theaters this extended Memorial Day (in the US) weekend. Thanks to good buzz and overwhelmingly positive reviews, Moonrise Kingdom had a remarkably strong debut, grossing $523,000 in its first three days ($669,000 including Monday) according to studio estimates found at Box Office Mojo.

Moonrise Kingdom averaged an impressive $130,750 per site, which, if estimates are correct, places the Focus Features release on the ninth spot among the best per-theater averages ever in the U.S. and Canada (oftentimes just in the US; no Canadian venues involved), and in first place among live-action feature films, ahead of Bill Condon / Beyoncé Knowles' Dreamgirls' $126,316 at three locations in 2006.

Well, that is, if you choose to ignore pesky details such as both inflation and the fact that, when discussing such “exclusive” releases, the addition or “omission” of one single theater not only can but does drastically affect per-theater averages. In other words, when comparing a movie that opened at four locations with another that opened at three or five, you're comparing apples with pineapples, or perhaps oranges with tangerines.

Remember: all things being equal, the fewer the number of theaters, the higher the per-theater average should be. When you're talking about four theaters, if you add a fifth, that represents a 25 percent increase in venues. Minus one would be a 25 percent decrease.

Inflation-Adjusted Box Office: Moonrise Kingdom behind Dreamgirls, Evita, Brokeback Mountain

Adjusted to 2012 dollars (to – generally speaking – better reflect actual ticket sales), Dreamgirls per-theater average would be approximately $151,000 – well ahead of Moonrise Kingdom's. But again, Dreamgirls had the advantage (in terms of per-theater averages) of being screened at one less location than Moonrise Kingdom. Another major Dreamgirls advantage: $25 tickets for reserved seats. And here's another example: Alan Parker / Madonna's Evita collected an adjusted (approx.) $173,000 in 1996 at two locations – half the number of theaters showing Moonrise Kingdom. When the number of theaters is taken into account, all three movies opened at about the same level. When Dreamgirls' higher ticket prices are taken into account as well, the Condon musical certainly lags behind Moonrise Kingdom in terms of popularity.

Also ahead of Moonrise Kingdom on the inflation-adjusted chart would be Ang Lee / Heath Ledger / Jake Gyllenhaal's Brokeback Mountain. Back in 2005, the gay love story averaged $109,485 at five locations, or approximately $133,500 today. That's more than Moonrise Kingdom's take at 25 percent more locations (yes, one single theater), which makes Brokeback Mountain's feat all the more impressive.

Also worth remembering is that a huge limited opening doesn't necessarily translate into huge box office grosses once the movie has run its course. Lee Daniels / Gabourey Sidibe's Precious opened with a phenomenal $104,025 at 18 locations (four and a half times more theaters than Moonrise Kingdom), but the family drama's domestic cume was a good (for a low-budget movie) though hardly outstanding $47.56 million. Another example: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris cumed at $56.81 million after opening with $99,834 per theater last year.

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson's best opening

Inflation or no, number of theaters or no, one thing is certain: Moonrise Kingdom does boast Wes Anderson's biggest opening ever, beating The Royal Tenenbaums' $276,981 (approx. $383,000 today) at five theaters back in 2001. The Royal Tenenbaums went on to gross $52.36 million (approx. $72 million today). It remains, by far, Wes Anderson's most successful film at the domestic box office.

And Moonrise Kingdom had better perform well domestically, as Wes Anderson's movies have invariably bombed overseas. His most successful entry abroad to date is Fantastic Mr. Fox, which raked in a paltry $25.46 million.

Moonrise Kingdom features Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, and Edward Norton, who lost out on The Avengers but got to play in this arthouse hit.

Edward Norton / Moonrise Kingdom photo: Niko Tavernise / Focus Features.

May 26 p.m. update

Men in Black 3 Will Smith Josh Brolin
Men in Black 3: Josh Brolin, Will Smith

Starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black III opened with solid though hardly outstanding figures at the North American box office on Friday. Directed by Men in Black / Men in Black II's Barry Sonnenfeld, the action / comedy / sci-fier will undoubtedly be this four-day weekend's top-grossing movie – which means that after three weekends on top, The Avengers' reign at the domestic box office is over. But there's no denying that MIB3's Friday performance fell below expectations, especially for a 3D movie budgeted at somewhere between $225m-$300 million.

Men in Black 3 collected $18 million (including $1.55 million from Thursday midnight screenings) at 4,248 theaters according to studio estimates found at Box Office Mojo. BOM's Ray Subers predicts that Men in Black 3 will gross at least $70 million – perhaps even reaching $80 million – over the four-day weekend. Box-office prognosticators were expecting the third Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones pairing to bring in $80m-90 million. So, even if Men in Black 3 does reach the $80 million mark, that'll still be at the lower end of expectations.

Also, according to Deadline.com, Men in Black 3 cost Sony Pictures either $225 million (as per Sony) or $300 million (as per “rival studios”), while the Los Angeles Times has the film's budget pegged at “nearly $250m.” For comparison's sake: Disney's John Carter cost a reported $250 millionand The Avengers $220m, while the reported budget of Universal's Battleship was $209 million.

MEN IN BLACK 3 way behind its two predecessors

Now, it would be ludicrous to claim that Men in Black III opened on a par with Men in Black ($18.85 million on Wed., July 2, 1997, including $4.81 million from Tuesday evening screenings) and Men in Black II ($18.59 million on Wed., July 3, 2002). In 2012 dollars, MIB opened with approximately $32 million while MIB2 opened with approx. $25 million.

Minor detail: Neither previous MIB movie was in 3D, which can increase ticket costs by up to 45 percent. Another minor detail: Men in Black cost $90 million (approx. $129 million today); Men in Black II cost $140 million (approx. $179 million today).

In addition to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black 3 features Oscar nominee Josh Brolin (Milk), two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Best Actress for Howards End, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility), Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Nicole Scherzinger, Michael Chemus, and Alice Eve. Etan Coen (not the Coen brothers' Ethan Coen) wrote the MIB3 screenplay.

Will Smith / Josh Brolin / Men in Black III photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.

Judi Dench The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Celia Imrie
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Judi Dench, Celia Imrie

At no. 2 on Friday, The Avengers took in $9.68 million at 3,918 locations. The Marvel actioner is expected to earn $45 million over the four-day weekend. Directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers stars Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.

Massacred by critics, Chernobyl Diaries opened with about $3.54 million (including $525k from Thursday midnight screenings) at 2,433 sites. That's a weak beginning for the horror flick co-written and produced by Oren Peli, best known for the Paranormal Activity sleeper hit. Chernobyl Diaries is expected to reach only $10m-11 million by Monday evening.

Directed by former visual-effects artist Bradley Parker (Let Me In, Peter Pan, The Time Machine), Chernobyl Diaries features Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked voice actor Jesse McCartney, Live Free or Die Hard's Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal. Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke were Oren Peli's Chernobyl Diaries co-screenwriters.

A Warner Bros. release, Chernobyl Diaries has an 18 percent approval rating among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics, and a 4/10 average. Also worth noting is that the horror flick had a “low budget,” though how low remains unclear as reliable figures – whether for the production or marketing / distribution costs – haven't been forthcoming so far.

At no. 4, Peter Berg's $209 million-budgeted Battleship grossed a measly $3 million on its second Friday out, and should take in at most $13.5 million by Monday evening. The flag-waving actioner / sci-fier stars John Carter's Taylor Kitsch, who has been quite unlucky at the U.S. and Canada box office this year. Kitsch's fellow players are Brooklyn Decker (whose What to Expect When You're Expecting is also faring poorly), Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, and Rihanna.

Rounding out the top five was Sacha Baron Cohen's underperforming comedy The Dictator, which, like Chernobyl Diaries, is also expected to earn $10m-11 million over the weekend after raking in $2.78 million on Friday.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expands

Rounding out the top 11 movies at the North American box office were the following: Cameron Diaz / Jennifer Lopez's What to Expect When You're Expecting with $2.2 million; Tim Burton / Johnny Depp / Michelle Pfeiffer's Dark Shadows with $2.03m; and John Madden / Maggie Smith / Judi Dench's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with $1.66 million after expanding to 1,233 locations.

Also: Jennifer Lawrence / Liam Hemsworth / Josh Hutcherson's The Hunger Games with $590,000; Michael Ealy / Jerry Ferrara's Think Like a Man with $390,000; and the Hugh Grant-voiced The Pirates! Band of Misfits with $270k.

Judi Dench / Celia Imrie / The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel photo: Ishika Mohan / Fox Searchlight.

Bruce Willis Moonrise Kingdom Frances McDormand
Moonrise Kingdom: Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand

Focus Features' Moonrise Kingdom, the Wes Anderson movie that opened this year's Cannes Film Festival, grossed $172,000 at four North American locations on Friday as per The Hollywood Reporter. If so, that's a huge box office debut, averaging $43,082 per theater.

Moonrise Kingdom features Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, and Bill Murray. Although there were some naysayers at Cannes, North American reviews have been overwhelmingly positive: Moonrise Kingdom currently has a 100 percent approval rating (and 8.3/10 average rating) among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics.

The feel-good French blockbuster The Intouchables debuted with a barely acceptable $28,700 at four locations, averaging $7,175 per site. The Weinstein Company may have dropped the ball on this one as this is the sort of movie that should have had crossover appeal (i.e., the capacity to attract the half-illiterate who have trouble reading subtitles).

At Rotten Tomatoes, The Intouchables has an 80 percent approval rating (though a just so-so 6.6/10 average). César winner Omar Sy and François Cluzet star. Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano directed.

Bruce Willis / Frances McDormand / Moonrise Kingdom photo: Niko Tavernise / Focus Features.

May 26 a.m.

Men in Black 3 Will Smith Tommy Lee Jones
Men in Black 3: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones

The summer season at the North American box office isn't exactly opening with a bang. Men in Black III debuted with hardly outstanding figures in the U.S. and Canada on Friday. Directed by Men in Black / Men in Black II's Barry Sonnenfeld, and starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, the action / comedy / sci-fier will undoubtedly be this weekend's top-grossing movie – which means that after three weekends on top, The Avengers' reign at the domestic box office has ended. On the other hand, there's no denying that MIB3's Friday performance fell below expectations, especially for a 3D movie budgeted at somewhere between $225m-$300 million.

Men in Black 3 collected $18m-$20 million (including $1.55 million from Thursday midnight screenings) at 4,248 theaters on Friday according to early, rough estimates found at Deadline.com. As per Deadline, that means a relatively underwhelming $65m-$75 million for the four-day weekend (Monday is Memorial Day in the United States). Box-office prognosticators were expecting the third Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones pairing to bring in $80m-90 million.

It gets more worrisome: according to Deadline, the film cost Sony Pictures either $225 million (as per Sony) or $300 million (as per “rival studios”). For its part, the Los Angeles Times has the Men in Black 3 budget pegged at “nearly $250m.” For comparison's sake: Disney's John Carter cost a reported $250 millionand The Avengers $220m, while the reported budget of Universal's Battleship was $209 million.

Men in Black III: Why the underwhelming Friday debut?

Why the underwhelming (estimated) Men in Black 3 box-office? The film has an acceptable 73 percent approval rating among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics (with a so-so average rating of 6.3/10). In any case, movies such as Men in Black 3 are review-proof.

What then? Well, one possibility is that Will Smith hasn't made a movie in four years. And Smith's pre-MIB3 release, the $55 million-budgeted Seven Pounds, was a major box office disappointment, grossing only $69.95 million in North America. (Internationally, Seven Pounds performed better – though without reaching blockbuster status: $98.21m.)

Not helping matters is that Tommy Lee Jones hasn't had a box office hit of his own since Men in Black II a full decade ago. (Captain America: The First Avenger and No Country for Old Men weren't “Tommy Lee Jones movies.”) Jones' biggest personal “box-office hit” since Men in Black II was The Hunted, a $55 million-budgeted 2003 release that took in a paltry $34.24 million domestically and a dismal $11.25 million internationally.

Men in Black III: After long hiatus

And finally, as mentioned above, the previous Men in Black movie was released ten years ago. Apart from something as iconic as Star Wars, it's difficult to whip up interest for a long-dormant movie franchise. Imagine if the gap between, say, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse had been ten years. However popular Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner may be with the Twilight crowd, there's a good chance that young fans of the series would have outgrown it, while potential new ones might never have heard of either Twilight or its trio of stars.

Ultimately, it's worth remembering that as per the Motion Picture Association of America, approximately 30 percent of North American “frequent” moviegoers are 17 and under. Ten years can represent, quite literally, a lifetime.

Now, what about Brad Bird / Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol? I'd say that the success of Cruise's fourth Mission: Impossible movie has less to do with the franchise itself than with the fact that MI4 earned excellent early buzz and highly enthusiastic notices: 97 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with a 7.6/10 average. That's hardly been the case with MIB3.

In addition to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black 3 features Oscar nominee Josh Brolin (Milk), two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Best Actress for Howards End, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility), Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Nicole Scherzinger, Michael Chemus, and Alice Eve. Etan Coen wrote the MIB3 screenplay.

Will Smith / Tommy Lee Jones / Men in Black 3 photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.

Chernobyl Diaries Devin Kelley Olivia Dudley Jesse McCartney
Chernobyl Diaries: Devin Kelley, Olivia Dudley, Jesse McCartney

Massacred by critics, Chernobyl Diaries opened with about $3 million at the North American box office on Friday (including $525k from Thursday midnight screenings) at 2,433 sites. That's a weak beginning for the horror flick co-written and produced by Oren Peli, best known for the first Paranormal Activity movie. Chernobyl Diaries is expected to reach only $11 million by Monday evening.

Directed by former visual-effects artist Bradley Parker (Let Me In, Peter Pan, The Time Machine), Chernobyl Diaries features Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked voice actor Jesse McCartney, Live Free or Die Hard's Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal. Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke were Oren Peli's Chernobyl Diaries co-screenwriters.

Chernobyl Diaries has an 18 percent approval rating among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics, and a 4/10 average. Also worth noting is that the horror flick had a “low budget,” though how low remains unclear as reliable figures haven't been forthcoming. Alcon / Warner Bros. acquired it and must have spent quite a bit marketing it. Once again, reliable figures, for now, are unavailable.

According to Deadline.com, at no. 2 on Friday, The Avengers took in $9.5 million at 3,918 locations. The Marvel actioner is expected to earn $45 million over the four-day weekend. Directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers stars Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.

At no. 3, Peter Berg's $209 million-budgeted Battleship grossed a measly $2.8 million on its second Friday out, and should take in a dismal $13.5 million by Monday evening. The flag-waving actioner / sci-fier stars John Carter's Taylor Kitsch, who has been very unlucky at the North American box office this year. Kitsch's fellow players are Brooklyn Decker (whose What to Expect When You're Expecting is also faring quite poorly), Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgard, and Rihanna.

Rounding out the top five in the U.S. and Canada will be Sacha Baron Cohen's underperforming comedy The Dictator, which, like Chernobyl Diaries, is also expected to earn $11 million over the weekend after raking in about $3 million on Friday.

Devin Kelley / Olivia Dudley / Jesse McCartney / Chernobyl Diaries photo: Warner Bros.

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