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‘Hotel Transylvania,’ ‘Looper’ make Sony’s weekend at box office

By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — After its last two films failed to resonate with American moviegoers, Sony Pictures Animation was back on top at the box office this weekend with “Hotel Transylvania.”

The 3-D movie, which features a Dracula character voiced by Adam Sandler, debuted with a robust $43 million, according to an estimate from the studio. Not only did that mark the biggest September opening ever — not adjusting for inflation — but “Transylvania” also had the strongest debut of any of Sony’s animated titles.

It was a strong weekend at the multiplex for the studio, as the sci-fi thriller “Looper” from Sony’s TriStar label claimed the runner-up position with a solid $21.2 million in ticket sales.

The only new wide release to be greeted with poor response this weekend was “Won’t Back Down,” the education drama starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal that tanked with $2.7 million.

Sony Pictures Animation’s biggest hit to date has been “The Smurfs,” which opened with $35.6 million last year and ultimately raked in $142.6 million domestically and $421.1 million more abroad. Although the movie performed well enough to warrant a sequel — “The Smurfs 2” is set to hit theaters next year — it didn’t do nearly as well as some of the biggest hits from DreamWorks Animation or Pixar Animation, such as the “Kung Fu Panda” or “Toy Story” franchises.

Sony has also struggled to attract domestic audiences to its titles produced by Britain’s Aardman Animations, including last year’s “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” and “Arthur Christmas” — so “Transylvania” is a welcome winner for them.

“Those movies worked out much better in Europe than they did in the States, and ‘Hotel Transylvania’ had more of an American sensibility,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution president.

“Hotel Transylvania” far exceeded Sony’s modest opening-weekend expectations and even beat industry projections, which had the film debuting with around $35 million. Previously, the highest-grossing film in the month of September was “Sweet Home Alabama,” which launched with $35.6 million in 2002 but did not have the advantage of 3-D ticket sale premiums.

“Hotel Transylvania,” which features celebrity voices such as Kevin James and Selena Gomez in addition to Sandler, was not greeted with especially warm reviews but was beloved by audiences this weekend. Those who saw the film — a 76 percent family audience — assigned it an average grade of A-minus, said market research firm CinemaScore.

Meanwhile, the critical darling “Looper” appealed strongly to older males this weekend, as 49 percent of the audience were men and 70 percent were over 25. That crowd gave the movie an average grade of B.

“To be able to release two Sony films on the same date and have incredible success on both films is one of those ‘wow’ moments,” Bruer said. “We thought long and hard about it but ultimately decided that an R-rated sci-fi thriller and a big animated family film could live in the marketplace at the same time.”

“Looper,” a time-travel film written and directed by Rian Johnson, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a younger version of an assassin played by Bruce Willis. The movie reunites Johnson and Gordon-Levitt, who first teamed up on 2005’s indie “Brick.”

“Looper” will be the biggest commercial success for the filmmaker, whose highest-grossing film to date was 2009’s crime comedy “The Brothers Bloom,” which made only $3.5 million in limited release. “Looper” is also a needed hit for Gordon-Levitt, as the 31-year-old actor’s upward trajectory in Hollywood hit a stumbling block this summer when his bicycle messenger film “Premium Rush” flopped at the box office.

“Looper” was financed for around $30 million by Endgame Entertainment, and FilmDistrict and Sony acquired North American distribution rights at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival based on a trailer-length promo.

While the movie is performing well in the United States and Canada, it also had an excellent launch internationally this weekend, particularly in China. Early estimates have the film — a co-production with China’s film producer and distributor DMG — opening with around $24 million there.

Though it sparked debate among the education community, “Won’t Back Down” failed to lure moviegoers to the box office this weekend. The movie, about two women trying to change a school for the better, was financed by Walden Media for $19 million but is being distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Though the movie was not liked by critics, the few members of the public who saw it this weekend enjoyed it, giving the adult drama an average grade of A-minus. Still, word-of-mouth would have to be exceptionally strong for the film to become as big a hit as an issue film such as “Erin Brockovich.”

As Chris Aronson, Fox’s president of domestic distribution put it: “This is a movie about a socially relevant topic, and not everybody wants to rush out and see those kind of films.”

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