What do you do if you're a studio and you have to sell a movie with no stars and a hard-to-grok concept? You think outside the box while going with what you've got. Sony successfully took its South Africa-set sci-fi action drama "District 9" to a $37 million opening weekend with a very smart marketing campaign that set the hook both online and in the real world, with bus-shelter posters implying a gritty aliens-among-us sense of mystery that downplayed even the title of the movie. But the studio also pushed the one name associated with the project -- producer Peter Jackson -- and pushed it where it counts, at the recent San Diego ComicCon. The opening weekend returns for "District 9" were on a par with "Cloverfield," another sci-fi no-star special that had a stealth campaign and a big behind-the-camera name -- but "District 9," being the better movie, will probably have better legs. The film had a healthy $12,000 per-theater-average, another sign that the marketing campaign clicked.
"G.I. Joe" came in second with $22 million, taking an expected 60% dive on its way to DVD -- not sure whether this will recoup its $175 million budget in theatrical. ("District 9," by the way, cost $30 million to make, so it's theoretically already in the black.) In third place was "The Time Traveler's Wife" with a cozy $19.2 million, star Rachel McAdams' biggest opening to date. (Co-star Eric Bana may have had something to do with that.) "Julie & Julia" was at No. 4, with only a 38% decline its second week -- word-of-mouth at work.
The weekend's box-office losers, sadly, included "Ponyo," the latest wonky masterwork from Japan's Hayao Miyazaki. Disney, which holds US distribution rights to Miyazaki's films, tried to bust this one out of the specialty/art-house ghetto, putting it in a comparatively broad 927 theaters and not bothering with a subtitled version for the grown-up anime crowd. Didn't work: "Ponyo" took in a soft $3.5 million, even with an English language voice cast that included tangential Cyruses and Jonases. Credit Disney with doing its best but its best obviously wasn't enough -- or, more precisely, the right approach for a tricky movie. "Ponyo" is aimed at the youngest audiences, and the toddlers who were at the screening I attended were in raptures of delight (as were their parents). Instead of marketing it to all family audiences, targeting the film to parents of very little ones might have worked better.
"Bandslam" also tanked -- $2.3 million at 2,000 theaters -- despite the presence of tweener stars Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka. Hmm, maybe the day of the Disney/Nickelodeon kid superstar is coming to a close? One can hope. "Bandslam" is surprisingly above-average for the genre, though, so with luck it'll have a healthy DVD afterlife.