leatherheads6.jpgSUNDAY AM: The movie that George Clooney directed, starred in and overhauled the script for, Leatherheads, stumbled badly at the box office this weekend, making only $12.5 million from 1,769 theaters and finishing only No. 3. (Interestingly, the pic’s studio, Universal, claimed it was No. 2, but every other Hollywood major had it as No. 3 behind Sony’s 21 and Fox/Walden’s Nim’s Island.) The screwball comedy about the early days of football was seen in Hollywood as a referendum on Clooney’s popularity at the box office. Because right now he is a big movie star but not a big box office star, and his hefty paydays in big studio projects like this definitely depend on the latter. (To be fair, few movie stars nowadays are reliably performing at the box office…)

Instead, Sony’s 21 casino caper fended off tough competition from three newcomers in the marketplace to score its second straight win as the #1 movie in North America. It earned a $15.1 million weekend, down only 37% from its opening last weekend, for a new cume of $46.5 million.

abigail_breslin1.jpgFamily fare Nim’s Island, starring Abigail Breslin and Jodie Foster for Fox/Walden, junped into 2nd place with $13.3 million thanks to strong Saturday kiddie matinees and a wide theater count of 3,513.

Another studio newcomer in release, horror pic The Ruins from DreamWorks /Paramount earned $7.8 million this weekend from 2,812 venues for 5th place behind #4 Horton Hears A Hoo!, the Dr. Seuss pic from Fox, which took in $9.1 million for the weekend finishing with a giant cume of $131M.

But Hollywood was aghast that Clooney couldn’t open his movie. (As one studio mogul said to me, “He’s no Will Smith.”) The ability of superstars to generate domestic gross by putting North American moviegoers into theater seats is why studios hire them in the first place. Now Leatherheads is the latest of his non-ensemble big studio movies released wide to open $16 million domestic (Michael Clayton, Intolerable Cruelty, Solaris, Three Kings, Out Of Sight, The Peacemaker, One Fine Day…) and a few times not even half that. jena_malone13.jpgTrue, Clooney has received much critical acclaim for his smaller movies in limited release like Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana. But he doesn’t get hefty paydays for those. In this case, he has only himself to blame for the lackluster financial performance of this latest movie. In addition to directing and starring, Clooney also did a major overhaul of the script to transform Leatherheads into a screwball comedy. [But a Writers Guild arbitration over screen credits went 2-to-1 against Clooney, who’s still furious about it. See my previous story here.] And yet that’s why the comedy seemed weak to top critics who gave it only 36% positive reviews. According to Rotten Tomatoes, “despite a good premise and strong cast, this pro football romcom is half screwball and half fumble.”

After coming in at a cost of $60 million, the Universal pic was nurtured by a smart marketing campaign that combined football, romance, comedy and nostalgia. Clooney also won studio kudos for hyping the hell out of the movie, eking out every ounce of PR possible. The comedy had been tracking well with older men and older women, and strong with young males and teens. Universal had been hopeful for high teens and with luck even $20 million. But it was not to be.

The rest of the Top 10 were holdovers.

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