By Amy Kaufman
With his latest film, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” sputtering over the holiday weekend, Nicolas Cage’s career as an action star continues to hit the skids.
The 3-D sequel, starring the 48-year-old actor as a motorcycle-riding superhero, was expected to easily top the box office this weekend.
Instead, it was Denzel Washington’s “Safe House” that took No. 1, rising to the prime spot after debuting in the runner-up position the previous weekend. The action thriller grossed an impressive $28.4 million over the four-day Washington’s Birthday holiday, bringing its 11-day total to $82.6 million, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures.
Moviegoers also didn’t forget about “The Vow,” the romantic tear-jerker that won the box-office battle the previous weekend. The film about a woman who suffers amnesia and cannot remember her husband collected an additional $26.6 million. After just over two weeks in theaters, the modestly budgeted picture starring Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams has already collected a strong $88.5 million.
The 3-D “Ghost Rider” sequel, as well as two other new films, did not have as much luck at the box office over the holiday weekend. Cage’s latest film was expected to debut with at least $30 million, but instead started off with a modest $25.7 million. The romantic comedy action film “This Means War” opened to a moderate $20.4 million, while the Japanese anime production “The Secret World of Arrietty” brought in a so-so $8.1 million.
Cage has had a mixed track record at the box office in recent years. The original “Ghost Rider” was one of his few hits, along with the 2007 sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which grossed around $350 million worldwide. But the actor’s last three films — “Drive Angry,” “Season of the Witch” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — all flopped.
“He should feel good about the opening of the ‘Ghost Rider’ sequel,” insisted Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution president. “He’s an actor that has many facets, and is always willing to take chances — and sometimes it pays off bigger than others.”
Back on Presidents Day weekend in 2007, “Ghost Rider” had a far more robust opening, starting off with $52 million. Ultimately, the movie grossed $115.8 domestically and about that much overseas as well.
The sequel, however, was made for about $30 million less than the original. “Spirit of Vengeance” was funded by Sony and production and financing company Hyde Park Entertainment for about $80 million, said one person close to the project who was not authorized to speak about it publicly. A Sony spokesperson said the actual cost was $57 million.
It now seems unlikely that the critically panned sequel will reach the same box-office heights, especially since those who saw the film this weekend didn’t like it, assigning it an average grade of C-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. The film attracted a largely male crowd, as 61 percent of the audience were men, roughly 48 percent under the age of 25.
“This Means War,” starring Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, was received more positively by audiences. Those who saw the film about two CIA agents fighting for the affection of the same woman gave it an average grade of A-minus, though it only received a 25 percent fresh rating on the critical review round-up site Rotten Tomatoes.
“We’re the Sally Field of movies after this weekend, it’s like, ‘You like me, you really like me!’” said Chris Aronson, executive vice president of distribution at Fox, which financed the movie with partner Dune Entertainment for about $65 million. “This just shows how critics missed the point of the movie. Audiences want to be entertained, and you can’t dispute the playability of this movie.”
The film attracted a 65 percent female audience, indicating its gross was likely negatively affected by competition from “The Vow,” which appealed to the same demographic.
Only days before its release, 20th Century Fox pushed the official release date for “This Means War” from Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 to Feb. 17. While the studio said the move was made in an effort to spread positive buzz about the film, it also seemed like a tactic to give the film more of a fighting chance against “The Vow.”
While “The Secret World of Arrietty” failed to crack the $10-million mark at the box office this weekend, the film still had the biggest opening of any of the anime films Walt Disney Studios has released in the U.S. “Ponyo,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki — who co-wrote “Arrietty” — debuted with $3.6 million in 2009 and collected $15.1 million by the end of its run.
The movie, about little people who live under the floorboards of a house, was a huge hit overseas when it was released internationally in 2010. That year, it became the top-grossing movie in Japan and made a total of $126 million abroad. The new version, which features the voices of English-speaking actors such as Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, was well-liked by Americans, who gave it an A-minus CinemaScore this weekend.
The film came to America largely due to John Lasseter, the chief of Pixar Animation Studios, who also oversees Disney Animation and has had a longtime relationship with Miyazaki.