SATURDAY PM/SUNDAY AM: This has been a topsy-turvy box office as North American grosses come in for Friday Saturday, and the weekend (which will be another down one overall compared to last year). Friday night, it appeared that Fox’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules sequel opened as a surprise No. 1, but then Warner BrosSucker Punch came on strong in late night West Coast shows. By Saturday moning, they were looking neck-and-neck for the weekend depending on how much Zach Snyder’s scifi fantasy film dropped on Saturday or Wimpy Kid 2 surged in kiddie matinees. But by Saturday night, the kid sucker-punched Zach Snuder for #1. Meanwhile, 2 pics this first quarter of 2011 passed $100 million domestic: Paramount’s Rango and Sony’s Just Go With It (Adam Sandler’s 12th pic to do so while international is headed to $100M, too).
Here’s the Top 10:

1. Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (Fox) NEW [3,167 Theaters]
Friday $7.3, Saturday $10.4M, Weekend $24M

Interestingly, a year ago, the first installment of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid embarrassed much-hyped The Bounty Hunter with Jen and Gerry on Saturday. Same thing happened this weekend with Diary Of A Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules and Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Who’d a thunk it? The sequel was already in development when the first one struck gold based on Jeff kinney’s wonderful book series with 40 million copies in print since first published in 2007. It was fired Disney movie chief Nina Jacobson’s first film as a producer (Color Force is her indie company), and she brought on Brad Simpson to co-produce the franchise. Together, they spent 5 months looking for the wimpy kid and even had an audition website where thousands tried out before choosing Zachary Gordon. The first pic cost only $19M to make. Now the sequel has come in at $21M despite having different directors, this time first-time live action director David Bowers who comes from animation (Flushed Away, Astro Boy) and got the job pitching the big comedic set pieces that ended up in the trailer. 

Wimpy Kid 2 has more laughs and family involvement than the original, plus more older brother Rodrick, played by Devon Bostick, who has driven greater girl interest because they think he is “hot”. Jacobson et al are currently working on the script for Wimpy Kid 3 with Bowers attached to direct, and Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky writing. “Carla Hacken and Elizabeth Gabler have always realized the importance of keeping up momentum ever since Fox 2000 bought the books,” Jacobson tells me. “Kids who have made the books into a phenomenon want to see them brought to life while they are still kids.” Meanwhile, I’m told that book author Jeff Kinney is “very involved in the movies well beyond contractual obligations, very engaged in the script process, a frequent and welcome presence on set, and very visible in the marketing and publicity”.

Fox would have been happy doing even 2/3rds of the first movie’s $22M biz last March. Because the studio told me there wouldn’t be as many K-to-12 classes out of school for Friday’s sequel opening — 20% for a year ago vs. 14% now — so matching openings wasn’t anticipated. And yet Wimpy Kid 2 played stronger to open with a better-than-expected $24M this weekend thanks to strength from kids up to age 14 and their parents. Overall, Saturday’s grosses surged +43% over Friday’s. The sequel also had a higher CinemaScore than the first movie: “A-” vs “B” last time.    

2. Sucker Punch (Warner Bros) NEW [3,033 Theaters]
Friday $8M, Saturday $7.4M, Weekend $20M

This latest mind-bender from Zack Snyder (300, Watchman, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, the upcoming Superman) fell short for #1 this weekend despite a significant uptick in tracking this week. Immediately, rival studios lined up to criticize that “Sucker Punch joins Kick-Ass as ‘can’t miss’ cool pics that missed”. But whereas Lionsgate over-estimated Kick-Ass  grosses (a $19.8M opening), Warner Bros and other studios expected Sucker Punch to come in around $20M. The sci fi fantasy was tracking best among males, with older males taking the lead. But the PG-13 pic didn’t show much heat — maybe because those trailers were the definition of confusing — until the very end of the campaign, where rival studios told me Warner Bros “spent a fortune pumping it up” given the film’s cost. (I’ve heard a range from $85M to $95M to $100+M.) Then again, it is harder to sell original pics.

Sucker Punch was positioned from the start as a wholly original escape from reality and a bold visual experience unlike any other. “The pedigree of 300 and Watchmen, the incredible realization into the action fantasy worlds, really appealed to our primary target audience of male moviegoers,” a Warner Bros exec told me about the marketing campaign that kicked off at Comic-Con last July — Comic-Con #11: ‘Sucker Punch’ — where not just Deadline’s correspondent thought it cinematically revisited Tank Girl. “Ultimately, any film as audacious as this one will polarize in terms of reaction, but the message is clearly that this is a must-see movie-going experience.”

The studio pandered to fanboys and Zack’s loyal following at first, but the broader campaign that followed launched with trailers for male- and female-targeted films ranging from Due Date and Black Swan to Green Hornet and Battle: Los Angeles. A very broad TV campaign started in mid-February “and the hyper visual nature of the film really made the advertising cut through the clutter”, claimed one exec, along with a massive outdoor campaign. Online was key to cementing the young male demo via a mobile application directing people to a secret website with exclusive content that would appeal to art and music fans, comic lovers, gamers, and technology early adopters. There was something called a “trailer painter” where users could paint their own frames of a 2-minute Sucker Punch music video to create a collaborative art project, plus a free iPad video game that made it into the Top 10 games and top 25 overall apps on the Apple store. Four animated shorts were created by Ben Hibon, who created the animated sequence for Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 in collaboration with Zack Snyder. But did all this stuff actually put asses in seats this weekend? Undoubtedly yes.

3. Limitless (Relativity) Week 2 [2,085 Theaters]
Friday $4.6M, Saturday $6.5M, Weekend $15M (-20%), Cume $41M

4. The Lincoln Lawyer (Lionsgate) NEW [2,707 Theaters]
Friday $2.9M, Saturday $4.8M, Weekend $10.5M (-20%), Cume $28.5M

5. Rango (Paramount) Week 4 [3,645 Theaters] 
Friday $2.3M, Saturday $4.5M, Weekend $10M, Cume $106.5M

6. Battle: Los Angeles (Sony) Week 3 [3,118 Theaters]
Friday $2.1M, Saturday $3.5M, Weekend $7.8M, Cume $72.8M

7. Paul (Working Title/Universal) Week 2 [2,806 Theaters]
Friday $2.2M, Saturday $3.5M, Weekend $7.8M (-40%), Cume $24.9M

8. Red Riding Hood (Warner Bros) Week 3 [2,715 Theaters]
Friday $1.4M, Estimated Weekend $4.5M, Estimated Cume $33.6M

9. The Adjustment Bureau (MRC/Universal) Week 4 [2,282 Theaters]
Friday $1.2M, Estimated Weekend $4M, Estimated Cume $54.5M

10. Mars Needs Moms (ImageMovers Digital/Disney) Week 3 [2,170 Theaters]
Friday $675K, Estimated Weekend $2.5M, Estimated Cume $18.5M

FRIDAY 4:45 PM: Based on very early box office, Warner Bros’ Sucker Punch from Zack Snyder (3,033 theaters) is looking to open for $7.5 million in North America Friday and may get to $8M. Fox’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (3,167 theaters) may debut with $6M for the day. So far, based on early grosses, Hollywood think both films will be neck-and-neck starting at $20M and maybe even around low $20sM as Wimpy Kid 2 gains momentum from Saturday kiddie matinees. More later…