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Box office: Clooney takes out the competition as 'The American' outpaces solid 'Machete,' weak 'Distance' [Updated]

American Proving that the dying genre of adult dramas isn't a totally lost cause at the box office -- at least not on the traditionally slow Labor Day weekend -- George Clooney thriller "The American" proved more popular than two other new movies this weekend despite exit polling that indicated audiences hated the picture.

"The American" sold $16.4-million worth of tickets from Friday through Monday, according to an estimate by distributor Focus Features, bringing its total since opening Wednesday to $19.6 million. The Robert Rodriguez-directed action-exploitation film "Machete" brought in a good $14 million over the holiday weekend, while romantic comedy "Going the Distance," starring Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, fizzled on the runway, grossing just $8.6 million. 

Ticket sales for "The American" on the standard three-day weekend, $13.1 million, were right in line with other low-budget Clooney pictures, such as last year's "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and 2008's "Leatherheads," which both opened to $12.7 million. However, by opening the new film, about an assassin working in a small town in Italy, on a Wednesday before an extended holiday weekend, Focus brought in a much higher figure in the first six days than those other pictures garnered.

Its strong performance appears to have been more a product of successful marketing than word-of-mouth. Exit polling indicated that audiences rejected the picture, which received mixed reviews from critics. Moviegoers gave it a stunningly low average grade of D-, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Those older than 25, who made up 88% of the film's audience, gave "The American" an F, as did women of all ages, who were a slight majority in crowds.

Audience reaction demonstrated that Focus' decision to promote the slow and meditative picture's action moments in advertisements and to open it in a large number of theaters nationwide, instead of starting in a few cities and then expanding it as the specialty film label often does, was a smart one.

A number of sophisticated dramas aimed at adults have underperformed at the box office in the last two years, including "Green Zone" and "State of Play." But the success of "The American" shows that when such movies are made at a relatively low price and released at a time of year like the end of summer, when audiences have been bombarded by bigger and louder pictures aimed at younger audiences, they can open well.

Machete "Machete," which stars action veteran Danny Trejo as an ex-federale who combats immigrant-bashing villains, did well with a marketing campaign primarily aimed at Latino audiences, who made up 60% of moviegoers. The movie performed best in cities with large Latino populations, including Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and Los Angeles. L.A. was its No. 1 market in the country.

Distributor 20th Century Fox paid only $8 million for distribution rights to "Machete," making it a solid performer.

Warner Bros. was disappointed by the grosses for "Going the Distance," however, which was made by its New Line Cinema label for $32 million. Audiences were mostly adult and female, but they didn't appear very interested in the romantic comedy about a couple in a long-distance relationship. Warner had been hoping at least to match the performance of romantic comedy "All About Steve," which opened to $14.1 million over Labor Day weekend last year.

Of last weekend's two new movies, thriller "Takers" declined a relatively modest 47% and collected $13.5 million over the four-day weekend, while horror film "The Last Exorcism" plummeted 64%, typical for the genre, and brought in $8.8 million.

[Update, 11:05 a.m.: Here are the top 10 movies at the domestic box office, according to studio estimates and Hollywood.com, along with international grosses when available. Ticket sales are for the four-day holiday weekend, but percentage declines are on a three-day basis to make for a fair comparison to last weekend:

1. "The American" (Focus): Opened to $16.4 million. $19.5 million since it debuted Wednesday.

2. "Machete" (Fox): Opened to $14 million.

3. "Takers" (Sony Screen Gems): $13.5 million on its second weekend, down 47% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $40 million.

4. "The Last Exorcism" (Lionsgate/Strike): $8.8 million on its second weekend, down 64% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $33.6 million.

5. "Going the Distance" (Warner Bros./New Line): Opened to $8.6 million.

6. "The Expendables" (Lionsgate/Millenium/NuImage): $8.5 million on its fourth weekend, down 30% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $94.1 million.

7. "The Other Guys" (Sony/Relativity): $6.7 million on its fifth weekend, down 16% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $108.1 million.

8. "Eat Pray Love" (Sony): $6.3 million on its fourth weekend, down 30% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $70.4 million.

9. "Inception" (Warner Bros./Legendary): $5.9 million on its eigth weekend, down 7% on a three-day basis. $22.6 million overseas in 60 foreign markets. Domestic total: $278.4 million. International total: $417.6 million.

10. "Nanny McPhee Returns" (Universal/Relativity): $4.7 million on its third weekend, down 26% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $23.5 million. International total: $62.6 million.]

-- Ben Fritz

[Update, Sep. 7, 8:44 a.m.: For more, see the box office story in today's Times.]

[For the record, 11:25 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Robert Rodriguez as Richard Rodriguez.]


'The American' review

'Machete' review

'Going the Distance' review

Danny Trejo, a lethal talent

George Clooney's 'The American' has a European air

Photos, from top: Thekla Reuten and George Clooney in "The American." Credit: Giles Keyte / Focus Features. Danny Trejo in "Machete." Credit: 20th Century Fox

Comments () | Archives (6)

Great commentary Ben, but I believe that "Machete" could have been the top film of this past weekend, given the poor ratings movie watchers gave "The American", and the solid performance "Machete" had, oh and it helps if you can get the director's name correct, his name is Robert. "Machete" will surpass "The American" and "Richard" should get his recognition.

The tickets may have been sold, but do a poll after the moviegoers leave the theatre. I am sure you will get a resounding tone of disappointment in this film. Warning to those thinking of spending their hard earned $$, DON'T! I wish I had this warning.

The American is terrible. The audience I was with started booing at the end. Don't fall for the preview.

Everybody has different taste in all works of art - including films - so I take the opinion of others with a grain of salt.

I had some very close friends 'highly recommend' various movies to me that made me wonder after watching them, what the heck I had in common with these people. "Who are you?" I thought.

Seriously, there is no accounting for taste.

I would see any movie with the best-looking man on the planet! (especially making love) Hos acting skills were fantastic!

I even like the movie very much. If it isn't movie 90 miles an hour or every detail isn't explained like the audience were 2nd graders the American population just can't sit still and get "inside" the movie

The Last Exorcism was such a great movie! Really makes you think, and makes me want to see it again just to put the pieces together! http://bit.ly/a15ueX


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