Disney's 'Tomorrowland' edges out competition in unspectacular debut

A still from Walt Disney's Tomorrowland.
Source: Walt Disney Pictures
A still from Walt Disney's Tomorrowland.

There weren't as many fireworks at the Memorial Day weekend box office this year as newcomer "Tomorrowland" disappointed with a $32.2 million debut.

The science-fiction adventure stars George Clooney and was directed by Brad Bird of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" renown. The Disney release is expected to pull in a lackluster $40.7 million for the four-day period.

That's still good enough for a first place finish, with Universal's "Pitch Perfect 2" coming in a close second with an estimated $30.3 million three-day haul and a projected $37.9 million for the four days. The acappella comedy's domestic total stands at $125.4 million.

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"Tomorrowland" had been expected to generate $40 million over the three-day period and $50 million over the four-day stretch. With a $180 million price tag, Disney faces an uphill climb to profitability. Not helping matters, overseas figures were an underwhelming $26.7 million.

Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis predicted that the film would pick up steam as schools let out, noting it is the only PG-rated release in the month of May.

"The trade off when you're taking a bit of a chance on a new piece of 1/8intellectual property 3/8 is that... it takes audiences a little longer to find a film," he said, adding, "This one is going to find its audience."

"Tomorrowland" appears to have been dinted by middling reviews and an overly secretive marketing campaign that left too many plot details under wraps. The film's opening weekend crowd was 51 percent male, with adults making up 61 percent of ticket-buyers and families comprising 30 percent of customers. It received a mediocre B CinemaScore, indicating mixed word-of-mouth.

Hollis said consumers initially seemed to respond to marketing materials that teased the film's plot elements while keeping plot information close to the chest, but the studio would comb over exit data to see if the strategy backfired.

"We wanted it to be something that was cool and edgy and mysterious," he said.

The weekend's other new wide release, "Poltergeist," pulled in $23 million from 3,240 locations for the three days and will make roughly $27.7 million for its first four days. The horror remake cost an economical $35 million to produce and was backed by Fox 2000 and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Warner Bros.' "Mad Max: Fury Road" had a solid hold, adding $23.8 million in its second weekend and pushing its domestic total to $87.3 million. It will do approximately $30 million worth of business over the four-day weekend. Still, with a budget of $150 million, plus promotion and marketing costs, the apocalyptic adventure has a lot of ground left to cover before it pushes into the black.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" rounded out the top five, with the superhero sequel nabbing $20.9 million and driving its stateside haul to $404.1 million.

Among art house releases, Fox Searchlight's "Far From the Madding Crowd" expanded from 289 theaters to 865 locations, picking up $2.3 million in the process. The adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel has earned $5.4 million.

The overall box office will likely trail last year's Memorial Day weekend, when "X-Men: Days of Future Past" opened to $90.8 million, by 19 percent. It also won't even crack the top ten Memorial Day weekends of all time.

"All it takes is one big movie to power a Memorial Day weekend, and we didn't have that," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

(Disclosure: Universal Pictures is owned by Comcast, which also owns CNBC.)