In Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall's Lieut. Col. Kilgore declared that napalm smells like "victory." This weekend 300: Rise of an Empire, depicting an ancient Greece-vs.-Persia naval battle with plenty of kill and gore, sailed to victory with $45 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. In second place, with $32.5 million, was DreamWorks' animated feature Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which includes a flashback to the Trojan War. At the North American box office, it was a good week to be Greek.
Neither movie's opening matched those of certain esteemed predecessors, but the studios could provide explanations and/or excuses. Exploding on screens exactly seven years ago, Zack Snyder's R-rated 300 earned a beefcakey $70.9 million on its way to more than $200 million domestic and a $456-million global gross. Rise of an Empire, which Snyder produced and co-wrote but did not direct, cost more to make ($110 million to $65 million) and earned less, despite the ticket-price advantages of 3-D and IMAX, which accounted for about three-quarters of its weekend take.
(READ: Our review of 300: Rise of an Empire)
Back in 2007, the core audience for blockbusters was young males, whose tastes were a defining factor in the kinds of movies Hollywood made. If that demographic hasn't quite deserted the multiplexes for video games and social media, it is a much less reliable factor. Also, today's action fare tends to be of the tamer, PG-13- rated variety; and Empire is a "hard R," with bloodbaths galore and luscious Eva Green as a smoldering dominatrix of the Aegean.
So it's a significant achievement that a male-oriented sex-and-violence epic with no stars can grab $45 million. Empire registered the strongest opening for an R-rated film since the early summer of 2012, when Seth MacFarlane's Ted grossed $54.4 million. The new movie received a middling "B" CinemaScore from first-nighters, who skewed 62% male (the audience for the first 300 was even more lopsided, at 72% male) and nearly a third of attendees in the old, golden age group of 25 to 35. Empire also sizzled abroad, cadging a fast $87.8 million from 58 foreign markets. Director Noam Murro can't yet proclaim Victory, but his movie has a fighting chance to be a midlevel worldwide hit.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman, based on the "Peabody's Improbable History" segment created in 1959 by Ted Key for the TV cartoon series Rocky and His Friends, opened well below the $43.6 million for The Croods a year ago. But that DreamWorks entry benefited from a hunger for animated features; the last to hit No. 1 was Wreck-It Ralph four months before. This year The LEGO Movie was at the top of the charts three of the last four weeks, earning $225 million; and Frozen, released in late Nov. 2013, has made $130 million of its $393.1 million this calendar year. The Disney princess movie has remained in the domestic top 10 for 15 consecutive weeks — topping Avatar's 14 but well behind Titanic's 26 — and is now at $1.009 billion worldwide.
Budgeted at about $125 million, the tale of a genius beagle and his pet boy, careering through ancient history on Peabody's WABAC machine, played to a predominantly female audience (56%), with 52% over the age of 25 — surprisingly high for an animated feature with a family vibe. Having already earned $65.8 million abroad, for a promising $98.3-million early take, Peabody should keep the DreamWorks fans occupied until the studio's more likely crowd-pleaser, How to Train Your Dragon 2, opens June 13.
(READ: Our review of Mr. Peabody & Sherman)
Last week's front runners, Non-Stop and Son of God, fell 47% and 61% respectively — a fairly sturdy hold for the Liam Neeson airplane thriller, a more precipitous dive for the Jesus biopic, but still not bad considering that almost all of Son of God had been widely seen, as part of the miniseries The Bible, last year on the History Channel. In its fifth week, George Clooney's The Monuments Men has racked up more than $70 million at home, or exactly its production budget; it needs to earn more abroad ($45.4 million so far) if it is to reap real profits.
(READ: Our review of Non-Stop)
12 Years a Slave, a beneficiary of last Sunday's Oscar win for Best Picture, returned to the top 10 for the first time in four months; it finally cracked $50 million domestic. Five other Best Picture nominees — American Hustle, Gravity, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club — finished in this week's top 20. Only Gravity is a worldwide smash ($708.7 million), with Wolf at $375.6 million and Hustle nearing $250 million.
(READ: Our recap of the Oscars)
The big specialty opening was The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson's magical romance of Europe between the wars scored an estimated $800,000 at just four theaters (though on a total of 10 screens at those venues). The $200,000-per-theater average is the highest for such a limited release, besting the $130,500 for the director's Moonrise Kingdom and the $147,000 for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, both in 2012. For mighty debuts in limited release, always bet on an Anderson. The bigger gamble — whether Budapest can equal or surpass the $52.4-million domestic total of Wes's The Royal Tenenbaums from 2001 — comes later. Here's hoping: if this wonderful movie becomes a popular hit, that would be a victory worth savoring.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. 300: Rise of an Empire, $45 million, first weekend
2. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, $32.5 million, first weekend
3. Non-Stop, $15.4 million; $52.1 million, second week
4. The LEGO Movie, $11 million; $225 million, fifth week
5. Son of God, $10 million; $41.5 million, second week
6. The Monuments Men, $3.1 million; $70.6 million, fifth week
7. 3 Days to Kill, $3.1 million; $25.6 million, third week
8. Frozen, $3 million; $393.1 million, 16th week
9. 12 Years a Slave, $2.2 million; $53.1 million, 21st week
10. Ride Along, $2 million; $130 million, eighth week