Just when signs of box-office doldrums began worrying studio execs, a flock of escaped zoo animals saved the day.
DreamWorks' latest animation fest, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," surpassed all expectations for its opening weekend, bringing in $63.5 million and helping the industry deliver a resounding 29% increase in overall box-office take compared with a year earlier.
That's an about-face from the previous weekend, when a relatively weak slate of films drove down the gate 37% and had industry observers howling that perhaps Hollywood wasn't recession-proof after all.
"The economy may be in a recession, but this proves that when the kids want to go see a movie, their parents will pay," said Paul Dergarabedian, Media by Numbers president. "There's just nothing better than animated animals for kids."
The numbers bear that out. The sequel handily outperformed its 2005 predecessor, "Madagascar," which opened with a $47.2-million gate that, adjusted for inflation, still comes up $10 million short of the current release. The sequel also beat out this year's other big animated pics, including Disney's "Wall-E" and DreamWorks' "Kung Fu Panda."
Though released on a non-holiday weekend, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" had the fourth-best opening weekend all year.
"The movie really exceeded all of our expectations and all the box-office predictors," said Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing for DreamWorks.
And with no major youth-oriented films premiering next weekend, it has clear sailing until Nov. 21, when Disney's animated road trip, "Bolt," bows. And yes, it too has talking critters.
Beyond the seemingly bottomless well of the talking-animal genre, Globe said, the film's success could be chalked up to the fact that, after the elections and all the negative financial news, "the country was ready for a comedy."
Indeed, the weekend's second-grossing film followed suit. Targeted to a completely different audience, Universal's R-rated laugher "Role Models" brought in $19.3 million, nearly double most forecasts.
"Everybody was anxious to get on with life and laugh again," said Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution at Universal.
The film stars Paul Rudd, a frequent player in raunchy Judd Apatow comedies. Though Apatow had nothing to do with "Role Models," a popular connection between Rudd and the director-producer may have helped it over the weekend.
The adult comedy also may have benefited from the weekend's biggest disappointment. MGM's R-rated comedy "Soul Men" had been picked to vie with "Role Models" for the second spot. Instead, it brought in only $5.6 million, scarcely half its expected take, and ended up in sixth place.
As one of the final film appearances by Bernie Mac, who died in August, the movie had been expected by some to draw curious fans.
"This proves that [the death of] Heath Ledger wasn't the main reason that 'Dark Knight' was such a phenomenon," said Brandon Gray, president of online movie tracker Box Office Mojo. Instead, he said, "Soul Men" may have had difficulty finding an audience looking for an adult-themed musical comedy.
A trio of repeat performers rounded out the box-office top five this weekend. Disney's "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" made $9.3 million in its third week, though it played on 162 fewer screens. After being launched with the best musical opening weekend ever, "High School Musical 3" has stayed strong, with ticket sales hitting $75.7 million in three weeks.
Fourth place for the weekend belonged to the Clint Eastwood-directed movie "Changeling," also from Universal. In its second week of wide release, it picked up $7.3 million in sales, only a 22% drop from last week. "Changeling" opened at a limited number of theaters three weeks ago.
It was the only serious drama in the top 10, and it bucked what Dergarabedian called the current trend in moviegoing: Escapism rules. " 'Changeling' transcends the fact that people don't want to see a downer of a film," he said.
Rounding out the top five was "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," another non-Apatow picture starring an Apatow ensemble member, Seth Rogen. The public bought $6.5 million worth of tickets to see "Zack and Miri" on 2,735 screens.
Next week's big U.S. release, James Bond's return in "Quantum of Solace" from Columbia Pictures/MGM, is expected to start strong. In widespread international release, where it showed in 60 countries, it brought in $106.5 million, the 11th-largest international weekend of all time, after a record-breaking debut last week in Britain.