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SUNDAY AM: North American numbers are fulfilling what promises to be one of the most interesting box office weekends of the summer movie season. That’s because the two films opening — a comic book reboot, and an M Night Shyamalan horror thriller — have received really bad buzz for months ahead of time because of their troubled pedigrees. While No. 1 The Incredible Hulk and No. 3 The Happening had better-than-expected debuts overall, they experienced fall-offs from Friday to Saturday (-15% and -21% respectively).  

Let’s face it, most film analysts thought Marvel and Universal were nuts to go back to the drawing board for Friday’s No. 1 The Incredible Hulk after the 2003 Ang Lee/Eric Bana version was beaten up so badly both by critics and the box office. “When Marvel and Universal announced they were making a Hulk film again, there were big whoops this would be the first flop of the summer,” a studio insider recalled to me. “But now something good is going to happen.” But this was another huge risk for Marvel Studios which self-financed its PG-13 comic book caper for around $160 million. Then the studio manhandled both director Louis Leterrier and star Edward Norton, who rewrote the script, then fought Marvel’s deep cuts to the final pic which nevertheless was well reviewed (67% positive). So it’s miraculous that The Incredible Hulk, which opened in 3,505 theaters, made $21.7 million Friday and $18.4M Saturday to score a $54.5 million weekend. Because of the bad buzz, its two studios were only expecting a $45M FSS. But that’s still significantly less than the $62.1M debut of the first Hulk which was considered a disappointing film because it experienced a huge drop-off. But the new The Incredible Hulk benefitted from slicker marketing and plotting as well as a lot of goodwill from Marvel’s blockbuster Iron Man. Not to mention that Robert Downey Jr cameo.

Even though The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s 2nd best-known character (with Spider-Man No. 1), the reboot is only the 5th biggest pic for a top Marvel character in a non-sequel opening. (To recap: Spider-Man broke the bank with $115M and so did Iron Man with $98.6M. Hulk opened to $62M. Fantastic Four to $56M. X-Men to $54.4M, GhostRider to $52M (4-day wkd) and Daredevil to $45M (4-day wkd).) In this desperate-for-another-franchise business, that’s probably good enough for Marvel Studios to try to make a sequel. But with Norton? Well, this was his highest opening ever (2nd to Red Dragon‘s $36.6 million). Exit polling gave The Incredible Hulk a Cinemascore of A- with males making up 60% of the audiences and females 40%; 48% under age 25%; 25 yrs and older 52%; an ethnically diverse audience of slightly less than half Caucasian (46%), followed by Hispanic (28%), African American (13%), Asian (7%), and other(6%). But most interesting of all was that the vast majority of the audience (82%) had seen the 2003 movie.

Also beaten up badly has been the other newcomer this weekend, M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated horror thriller The Happening from 20th Century Fox. The Mark Wahlberg starrer started out No. 2 Friday even after film critics and writers alike seemed intent on reviewing the writer-director-producer instead of the movie. (Only 11% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.) With a nasty tell-all book and several film flops behind him, Shyamalan no longer is the popular suspense moviemaker celebrated for his early hits like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Instead, he’s been branded as the hopelessly arrogant has-been, with media outlets appearing to root for the failure of his latest pic (and some newspapers like USA Today even published spoilers). In an attempt to mitigate the collateral damage from Shyamalan’s unpopularity, Fox laid off much of the cost of  The Happening on Indian-based UTV and to a lesser extent Spyglass, while also limited Shyamalan’s exposure to the media. (I’m told the studio was reluctant to let M. Night insert one of his Hitchcock-style cameo appearances into the new pic.) But the always aggressive Fox marketing gave the film an intriguing ad campaign with great visuals (all those bodies seemingly falling from the sky). So what a huge relief for everyone concerned that The Happening managed a $30.5M weekend when the studio was expecting only high teens or low 20s. It exceeded all expectations from 2,986 venues on Friday with $13M. “Obviously, by the strong showing friday, he still has a big fan base,” a Fox source said about Shyamalan. But then the pic dropped off 23% Saturday with $10.2M and fell to #3. Although there’s often a fall-off for horror pics from Date Night, especially if it’s Friday The 13th, the movie was badly received in exit polling. It earned only a Cinemascore of D.

The rest of the Top 10 movies this weekend were holdovers. Moving up a notch to No. 2 was the DreamWorks Animation / Paramount top film from last week Kung Fu Panda which has been playing more like a four-quadrant tentpole than a kiddie toon. It fell only 43% to make $34.3M for the weekend from an expanded theater count of 4,136 for a big new cume of $117.9M weekend. Sony’s original comedy You Don’t Mess With The Zohan starring Adam Sandler under Judd Apatow’s banner, fell two notches to finish No. 4 Friday with $16.4M from 3,466 runs, or -57%, with a new cume of $68.7M. No 5 was Paramount’s Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull with $13.5M from 3,805 theaters and a new cume of $275.3M. And then there’s another surprise — the staying power of HBO Films / New Line / Warner Bros’ ultimate chick flick Sex And The City which came in No. 6 with $10.1M  from 3,155 plays for a new cume of $119.9M. 

At No. 7, Marvel / Paramount’s Iron Man finished the weekend with $5.1M in 2,403 venues and a new cume of $297.4M. weekend. Rogue Pictures / Universal’s The Strangers came in No. 8 with $4M from 2,410 theaters and a new cume of $45.3M. Still making money at No. 9 is Walden Media/Disney’s The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian with $3M from 2,308 runs and a new cume of $131.7M. Finally, in No. 10, Fox’s What Happens In Vegas made $1.7M from 1,422 plays for a new cume of $75.7M.