By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Moviegoers continue to be taken with Liam Neeson as an action hero, as the 60-year-old actor’s latest film, the kidnapping thriller “Taken 2,” had a superb No. 1 debut over the weekend.
The sequel to 2009’s “Taken” opened to a strong $50 million, according to an estimate from distributor 20th Century Fox. That’s double what the original film launched with three years ago, when its $24.7 million start surprised on the historically slow Super Bowl weekend.
While the Neeson flick met the highest of industry projections, the stop-motion animated “Frankenweenie” fell short of even its studio’s modest hopes. The Walt Disney Studios 3-D film collected a lackluster $11.5 million during its first weekend in theaters, marking another disappointing debut for writer-director Tim Burton this year.
Meanwhile, after an excellent start in limited release last weekend, the a capella comedy “Pitch Perfect” expanded to theaters nationwide and brought in a respectable $14.7 million. The film has now sold $21.6 million worth of tickets in 10 days.
It was a good weekend for Hollywood, as weekend ticket sales were up about 46 percent compared with the same three-day period last year. This year’s ticket sales are still up about 3 percent versus 2012, while attendance has lifted 2 percent since last year.
Though critics panned “Taken 2,” audiences enjoyed it, assigning the film an average grade of B-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That’s the same grade that “Frankenweenie” — which was beloved by reviewers — received from opening-weekend moviegoers.
The robust opening for “Taken 2” further solidifies Neeson’s draw as an action hero. After “Taken” grossed $226.8 million worldwide three years ago, the Irish actor landed a handful of roles in other action flicks that performed well at the box office, including “Unknown” and “The Grey.”
“I think people respond so positively to Liam in this role because the guy he plays is approachable — he’s the father and the husband that everybody wishes they had. Tough, but he loves his family,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s president of domestic distribution. “Liam knows how popular this character and franchise is with audiences, and he did a lot of promotion with us where he could connect with fans during screenings, where he really pressed the flesh.”
Co-financed by Fox and French writer-producer Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp for roughly $45 million, “Taken 2” follows Neeson’s former CIA operative as he is kidnapped. In the first film, Neeson’s character had to rescue his daughter when she was taken hostage.
The movie did brisk business this weekend largely because it appealed to a broad audience, drawing only slightly more males than females (52 percent compared with 48 percent) and both young and old (56 percent were older than 25).
“Taken 2” played in 50 foreign markets this weekend and grossed $55 million. The movie performed best in the United Kingdom, where it raked in $12.1 million, but also did well in Besson’s native France. The picture has yet to debut in nine international countries, including Germany and Italy.
“Frankenweenie” struggled to lure moviegoers away from another animated film over the weekend, “Hotel Transylvania.” The latter 3-D monster movie, after topping the multiplex upon its debut last weekend, saw its ticket sales drop only 38 percent to $26.3 million, raising its overall total to $76 million.
In May, Burton’s Johnny Depp vampire film “Dark Shadows” underperformed, grossing around $80 million domestically against a $150 million production budget. “Frankenweenie” is the filmmaker’s third stop-motion release, following “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride” — neither of which were hits.
“Historically, stop-motion films have appealed to an audience that’s a little more specific than the audience for hand-drawn or CGI animated films, but I don’t know why that is,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive vice president of distribution. “I’m confident that we’ve got something great here, though, and that those who have seen it will become evangelists for it and tell people about it that might not think it’s for them.”
Disney spent $39 million to produce Burton’s latest film, which was spawned from a 1984 short he made about a boy who revives his dead dog through a Frankenstein-esque science experiment. About half of those who saw “Frankenweenie” this weekend opted to shell out a few extra bucks for 3-D tickets — a higher-than-average percentage for an animated family film. (Last weekend, for example, 35 percent of the business for “Hotel Transylvania” came from 3-D receipts.) The movie appealed equally to men and women, and 53 percent of the crowd was younger than 25.
After receiving a CinemaScore A last weekend, “Pitch Perfect” benefited from strong word of mouth as it expanded into 2,770 theaters. The film about a competitive college singing group should be a financial winner for Universal Pictures, which co-financed the movie for $17 million with Gold Circle Films. It’s unclear if the movie will perform well overseas, as it launched in New Zealand this weekend and came in No. 4 at the local box office.