By Mack Chico
This is how far movie stars have fallen in their ability to pull audiences into theaters, at least when the story revolves around Iraq and the messiness of the Middle East: A picture about talking dogs, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” trampled Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe at the weekend box office.
“Body of Lies,” a terrorism thriller starring Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Crowe, sold an anemic $13.1 million in tickets at North American theaters, according to the theater tracking company Box Office Mojo. The movie’s stars are considered two of the biggest draws in the business. And the film was directed by Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “American Gangster”), one of the few filmmakers who are household names.
Warner Brothers, the studio behind this serious, expensive movie, blamed the bad timing of an economic crisis. “The result is directly related to the dire mood of Americans,” Dan Fellman, president for domestic theatrical distribution at Warner Brothers, who flatly rejected the industry belief that the film’s megawatt stars should have garnered higher sales regardless.
Still, Warner Brothers had turned “Body of Lies” into a referendum on star power by choosing to market the film squarely on the backs of Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Crowe, delivering scant information about the plotline in the process. And the marketing was considerable, beginning in force during the Beijing Olympics and continuing with a major billboard and television campaign. (“Body of Lies” cost an estimated $70 million to produce; the average studio film costs an average of nearly $36 million to market.)
The studio worried that selling “Body of Lies” based on its plot would be difficult. Adapted from the best-selling novel by David Ignatius, the movie centers on a C.I.A. operative who is tracking a terrorist leader, and bounces from Iraq to Turkey to the United States to Jordan. In the past few years movies focusing on the Iraq war and the fallout from 9/11 (“Rendition” and “Lions for Lambs,” for example) have generally performed terribly, even with big-name stars like Tom Cruise and Reese Witherspoon.
Escapism definitely ruled the weekend — something that should ring alarm bells for almost all the Hollywood studios as they prepare to flood the market with somber awards-driven pictures. Films like “Changeling,” starring Angelina Jolie as a mother in search of her kidnapped son, and “The Soloist,” featuring Jamie Foxx as a homeless musician, may have an extra hurdle to cross.
“Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, sold an estimated $17.5 million in tickets over the weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. That was enough for the No. 1 slot for the second week in a row, bringing its cumulative gross to $52.5 million. Second place went to another escapist entry, this time in the horror genre: “Quarantine,” released by Sony/Screen Gems, sold about $14.2 million in tickets, drawing heavily on younger moviegoers.
“Body of Lies” was third. Fourth place went to “Eagle Eye” with $11 million (for a new total of $70.6 million). And “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” was fifth with $6.5 million ($20.8 million).