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​Box Office: In ‘Maleficent’ vs. ‘Million Ways,’ It’s Girls 1, Guys 0

box office maleficentWhy have this summer’s box office behemoths been dropping like flies after their first weekends?

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Neighbors,” “Godzilla,” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” all opened at No. 1 and then plummeted, losing half or two-thirds of their business the following weekend. One possible reason: they all have too much testosterone.

Yes, summer tentpole movies (note the standard Freudian nickname) tend to be pretty macho, without much appeal to female audiences. This summer, however, girl-power movies may be coming out on top. That was certainly the case this weekend, with Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” opening on top with an estimated $ 70.0 million (about $ 15 million more than most pundits predicted) while “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seth MacFarlane’s follow-up to “Ted,” struggled to a third-place debut with an estimated $ 17.1 million, about $ 10 million below expectations.

Yes, “Maleficent” had a lot of advantages over “Million Ways,” but many of those tie into gender.

First off, “Maleficent” had Jolie, who remains one of the biggest stars on the planet even four years after her last live-action movie. In this case, her long absence seems only to have whetted viewers’ appetites to see her in this film, rather than allow them to forget her. She’s getting better reviews for her performance than the movie is overall (though audiences clearly love the film, giving it an A grade at CinemaScore). The character certainly fits her right down to the cheekbones. It’s certainly hard to imagine audiences getting this excited to see anyone else star in a rewrite of “Sleeping Beauty” from the wicked fairy’s point of view.

The genre is also a plus. Disney has done well in recent years with these live-action fairy-tale reboots (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Oz the Great and Powerful”), but so have others (like Universal with “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which opened this same weekend two years ago). As a result, Disney has been willing to go all out on this one, from spending a reported $ 180 million on the production (when’s the last time you saw a studio spend that much on a female-centered movie?), adding 3D and IMAX versions (think how many tens of millions “Snow White” might have added to its take if Universal had made it 3D), and saturation-marketing it for more than six months. And speaking of fairy tales, it doesn’t hurt that Disney is still coasting on a wave of girl-power good will from the success of its six-month-old animated hit “Frozen,” which this week became the fifth biggest movie of all time (not adjusting for inflation).

Of course, it also helped that the movie was rated PG, allowing it to draw a big family audience (45 percent of its viewers) at a time when there are few other family-friendly options at the multiplex. Even so, Disney reports that a full 60 percent of “Maleficent” viewers this weekend were female.

Conversely, “Million Ways” had some built-in disadvantages, starting with writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane. For all the popularity of “Family Guy” and his other animated TV shows, he’s a fairly divisive presence in person. He was wise not to appear on camera in “Ted.” To many potential “Million Ways” viewers, however, the on-screen lead is the guy who sang “We Saw Your Boobs” when he hosted the Oscars last year. Ted’s voice aside, MacFarlane is not the proven leading man that Mark Wahlberg is.

Then there’s the genre. Westerns don’t do well for foreign audiences, but they don’t do well here, either. There have been a couple of noteworthy exceptions, Westerns that played the genre straight (“True Grit,” “Django Unchained”), but tongue-in-cheek Westerns don’t do well these days (see “Jonah Hex,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” and “The Lone Ranger”).

Finally, dumb (or cleverly dumb) man-child comedy isn’t doing that great either. True, “Neighbors” has done well, but it’s better-executed than most, and besides, it seems to have sucked all the air out of the room for movies that followed, including Adam Sandler’s “Blended” and now, “Million Ways.” The R rating is also problematic; it keeps younger viewers away, and while it might attract more older viewers if the reviews were better (à la “Ted”), they’re not.

There’s another theory out there, that women and girls rushed to see “Maleficent” this weekend because they know “The Fault in Our Stars” is opening next weekend. It’s a similar notion to the one floated a couple weeks ago, that “Godzilla” enjoyed a larger-than-expected debut because the fanboy crowd knew that “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was opening the following weekend. Maybe there’s something to that; maybe smart viewers helped put “X-Men” on top last week because they wanted to see it in 3D or IMAX and knew that the mutant sequel would be giving those screens up to “Maleficent” this weekend. I’m not sure if moviegoers are that well-informed as to the scheduling practices of 3D exhibitors, but I will say that I wouldn’t expect a similar effect for MacFarlane’s Western; I don’t think guys were making a point of seeing it this weekend because they knew the sci-fi action thriller “Edge of Tomorrow” would be elbowing It aside next weekend.

One thing Is certain: this summer’s blockbusters don’t have a lot of staying power.

Right now, there are only nine movies playing on more than 1,000 screens each, meaning that moviegoers who depend on the multiplexes don’t have a lot to choose from this summer. So perhaps they’re choosing more carefully.

Next weekend, though, “Edge of Tomorrow” will grab about 3,300 screens (some of them, perhaps, the 3D and IMAX screens currently occupied by “Maleficent”) and “Fault in Our Stars” will grab 3,000. So the battle between the Tom Cruise explosion-fest and the Shailene Woodley tearjerking teen romance will be an interesting test of whether “Maleficent””s girl-power triumph was a fluke or a sign of a lasting shift in taste.

I’d expect “Edge” to open bigger but “Stars” to last longer in theaters — and in the memories of moviegoers who see it.

Photo courtesy Disney

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