Only a couple of weeks ago, "The Town" didn't appear to have a prayer of topping this weekend's box office.
Pre-release surveys showed modest audience awareness of and interest in the heist picture starring and directed by Ben Affleck. That it was targeting adults, typically the toughest group to get out to movie theaters on an opening weekend, gave more reason for skepticism.
But a major publicity push coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, a last-minute surge in advertising and strong reviews helped make it the rare adult drama to top the box office.
"The Town" sold an estimated $23.8 million worth of tickets this weekend in the U.S. and Canada, putting it ahead of the high school comedy "Easy A," the favorite going into the weekend, which ended up with a solid $18.2 million.
Horror thriller "Devil," meanwhile, came in with a slightly disappointing $12.6 million, while the 3-D animated family film "Alpha and Omega" limped behind with just $9.2 million.
Warner Bros. is hoping that, on a more modest scale, "The Town" will mirror the performance of 2006's similarly Boston-set crime drama "The Departed." With a higher-profile cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson, that Martin Scorsese-directed picture opened in early October 2006 to $26.9 million and went on to gross $132.4 million before winning the Academy Award for best picture.
Though "The Town" is unlikely to take in that much, Warner domestic distribution President Dan Fellman said he's hopeful that good word of mouth — audiences gave it a strong but not spectacular average grade of B-plus — could take it to more than $80 million.
Such a result would make "The Town" a solid performer for Warner and partner Legendary Pictures, which spent $37 million on the production.
"The chemistry for this movie really clicked in the last 10 days," said Fellman. "I think it's going to be around for a while."
The strong start for "The Town" demonstrates that despite some high-profile disappointments in the genre, adult dramas can succeed when they're produced on a relatively modest budget and garner good reviews and pre-release buzz. People older than 25 made up 75% of opening weekend audiences.
"Easy A," meanwhile, drew a mostly young and female crowd. Such youth-skewing pictures often fade fast from theaters, but the contemporary spin on the literary classic "The Scarlet Letter" earned strong reviews and got an average audience grade of A-minus, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
Regardless of how long it lasts, Sony's Screen Gems genre label can't be disappointed with the results, because the movie was made for only $8 million.
Universal Pictures, however, was moderately disappointed with results for the M. Night Shyamalan-produced "Devil," which performed best in late-night shows in large cities and drew a higher-than-average percentage of African American moviegoers.
However, the movie about people trapped in an elevator with a creature from the underworld was an inexpensive pickup for Universal and its partner Relativity Media, which spent $27 million to acquire worldwide distribution rights from Media Rights Capital.
Lionsgate also had little at risk on "Alpha and Omega," the first result from a 5-year-old partnership it signed with India-based Crest Animation. The studio said it expected to make a profit on the low-budget family movie, which drew mostly young children and their parents, but there was no mistaking its lack of popularity. "Alpha and Omega" had the worst opening ever for a movie with premium-priced 3-D tickets playing at more than 2,000 theaters.
The drama "Never Let Me Go" had a strong opening in limited release, generating an estimated $120,830 at four theaters in Los Angeles and New York, or $30,208 per location. The alternate-reality tearjerker starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield has brought in $165,331 since its Wednesday arrival.
The controversial Sundance Film Festival favorite "Catfish" — a documentary that had many attendees questioning its authenticity — also got off to a good start, grossing $255,000 at 12 theaters, including five in Los Angeles. The average take per theater for the story about a bizarre online romance was $21,271.
The Philip Seymour Hoffman off-Broadway play adaptation "Jack Goes Boating" didn't do too well in limited release. It collected just $30,000 or an average of $7,500 from each of its four theaters in L.A. and New York.