LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Neill Blomkamp's Chappie and Unfinished Business with Vince Vaughn added up to a weekend to forget at the US box office.
Overall ticket sales plunged as Chappie, a science-fiction adventure about a sentient robot, topped charts with a weak US$13.3 million (S$18.3 million) from 3,201 locations.Going into the weekend, Sony Pictures was aiming for a debut of roughly US$15 million and some analysts expected the film could hit US$20 million.
Reviews were tepid, and the picture is the latest in a long line of R-rated new releases such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Focus, which may have hurt it with moviegoers looking for something that appeals to kids as well as adults.
"There's been a glut of R-rated movies starting from the first of the year," said Rory Bruer, Sony's worldwide distribution chief. "I think there's some R-rated fatigue."
The odds may have been against Chappie from its inception.
Original science-fiction films have had a rocky go of it at the box office of late, with Seventh Son, Jupiter Ascending and Project Almanac all crashing on the shoals of audience indifference.
Blomkamp may be on safer ground with his next project, a new instalment in the Alien franchise.
Chappie was produced for US$49 million, and Sony isn't ready to concede defeat on the picture just yet, predicting it could make a profit when foreign markets are taken into account. Bruer notes that Blomkamp's previous films, District 9 and Elysium, were able to stick around for a long time after their debuts.
"The movie plays well, and the uniqueness of the characters is going to drive a conversation that I do believe will help the film in the coming weeks," he said.
It was a dispiriting weekend overall for the business, with ticket sales down roughly 35 per cent from the year-ago period - a weekend that saw the debuts of 300: Rise of an Empire and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. That also took a chunk out of the substantial lead that the exhibition industry had maintained over 2014's first quarter numbers.
Ticket sales are now up roughly 5 per cent over the previous year's, but two weeks ago they topped them by roughly 10 per cent.
"The market has been so strong lately, I'm not surprised to see such a big down weekend," said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "Things have to slow down at some point."
Chappie fared better than Unfinished Business, another R-rated whiff. The business trip comedy eked out a gloomy US$4.8 million across 2,777 locations. It ranks as the lowest debut of Vaughn's career, raising serious questions about his appeal.
The Wedding Crashers star has headlined an array of flops over the past four years, including The Dilemma, Delivery Man, The Internship and The Watch.
A lot is riding on the second season of True Detective to return Vaughn to audiences' good graces.
Twentieth Century Fox distributed the US$35 million film, which New Regency financed. The opening crowd for Unfinished Business was 55 per cent male and 54 per cent over the age of 25.
"Sometimes this happens where a film doesn't connect with an audience," said Spencer Klein, executive vice president of theatrical distribution at Fox. "Fortunately, this hasn't happened too often to us."
There was one diamond in the crop of dinged-up new releases - The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The comic tale of retirees making new lives for themselves in India bowed to a sterling US$8.6 million across 1,573 locations. Fox Searchlight is distributing the comedy which was co-produced by Participant Media and cost a mere US$10 million to produce.
"This audience of moviegoers wants to see something different, and there hasn't been much out there for them," said Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Fox."This market of specialty crowds and more mature audiences has been underserved."
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will add approximately 300 screens to its current crop of venues next weekend, Rodriguez predicted. The first picture stuck around for months, eventually making US$46.4 million, but this film had a wider debut and should be more front-loaded.
The film played older and female, with more than 65 per cent of the crowd comprised of women and the same percentage over the age of 50.
"Our core audience came out this weekend, but it's comprised of moviegoers who don't always rush out immediately," said Rodriguez. "We think this is the kind of film that could stick around."
Last week's champ, the Will Smith heist picture Focus, had to settle for runner-up status, taking second place on the charts with $10 million. That brings the film's take to US$34.6 million.
Among holdovers, Kingsman: The Secret Service took in US$8.3 million, pushing its take to US$98 million, while Fifty Shades of Grey added US$5.6 million to its US$156.4 million haul.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water continued to benefit from being one of the only family-friendly releases in the market, picking up US$7 million and driving the picture to US$149 million at the Stateside box office.
At the arthouse, Sony Pictures premiered the spin-doctor documentary Merchants of Doubt on four screens where it earned US$20,327, while The Hunting Ground, a look at sexual violence on college campuses, added US$8,936 from two screens to its US$45,822 gross.
Roadside Attractions and Black Label Media's critically adored thriller 71 capitalised on good reviews, earning US$70,590 after expanding from four to 16 screens in New York and Los Angeles.
Next weekend brings Disney's live-action version of Cinderella and with it a chance at box office redemption.