Weekend Wrap-Up

Memorial Day Weekend Disappoints at Box Office

By John Hamann

May 24, 2009

I'm a two-time Academy Award nominee. Why am I in this with you?

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It was supposed to be the showdown of showdowns – Terminator Salvation versus Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian – two tentpoles destined to be huge, both opening over the biggest box office weekend of the year. They were two films that weren't supposed to play as competition; they were targeting different audiences, one adult males, the other families. In the end, they both opened with okay scores at best, making the battle of the box office more like Paul Blart versus Seth Rogen.

The winner of the box office showdown is Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, but like the original, it's going to need some serious legs to show a return for its studio, 20th Century Fox. The Ben Stiller comedy opened to $53.5 million over the three-day portion of the weekend (Friday-to-Sunday) from a massive 4,096 venues. Tracking was looking for $80 million over four days, so unless something very odd happens, it's going to throw well under that score. Night at the Museum 2 cost Fox $150 million to make, and it's probably safe to add another $100 million for prints and advertising, making this a $250 million bet for the studio. Domestically, this is probably a $200 million dollar finisher, and the original's foreign tally actually outscored the domestic, so in the end this will be a win, but not the lotto victory the suits at Fox would have been expecting.


Night at the Museum 2 opened Friday, a day after Terminator Salvation hit screens. Museum's Friday gross came in at $15.3 million, not far off the $12.1 million the original earned on December 22, 2006. This was immediately bad news for Fox. Sequels are supposed to debut much larger than originals, especially on opening night, as moviegoers are familiar with the characters and the plotline, making such movies a safe choice. Reviews were largely ignored when the original opened; Rotten Tomatoes registered a rotten rating of 44% but the film still went on to be incredibly leggy. The original opened to only $30 million over its first three days, but managed a $250 million domestic gross, thanks largely to an abundant holiday season. This time out, Fox isn't going to be as lucky. The original Night actually increased its take in the second frame, moving from $30.4 million to $36.8 million, an increase of 21%, something virtually unseen at the box office today. With the sequel, Night at the Museum and Fox aren't going to have the same luck. The reviews this time out are remarkably similar at 43% fresh, but this is a sequel so adults will be more apt to avoid this one if they didn't like the original. Secondly, Pixar and Disney launch Up next weekend, whereas the original Night at the Museum had zero competition from new films over its second frame – no new openers whatsoever.

Fox was obviously banking on a huge opening weekend for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, to the point where I have to beleive this missed by as much as $25 million (this opened lower the Prince Caspian). What happened? The original Night had a stellar marketing campaign; the idea of the running fossilized dinosaur stuck with people as it was original, and the trailer and TV ads were everywhere. Did Fox think that because this was a sequel they didn't have to create as much awareness? I think the marketing campaign let this one down – Terminator Salvation was everywhere, whereas Night at the Museum was nowhere.

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