One of the nifty tricks of the movie business is major studios' ability to -- somewhat precisely -- predict how much a movie is going to make before it even comes out.
Studios rely on their so-called tracking reports to gauge how well the TV commercials and other marketing collateral they're paying millions of dollars for are doing. For example, if only 50 percent of the populace knows your movie is coming out, it might be time to pony up for more billboards and Thursday-night TV ads.
But beyond figuring out how many people know about a movie, the process becomes kind of a pain in the butt when trying to decipher how many people will actually go to it.
Such was the case this weekend with Paramount's Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which was forecast to take in anywhere between a horrible $12 million to a stellar $40 million over its first three days of release.
Or as one studio executive put it: "You try getting into the mind of an 11-year-old girl."
As it happened, the 3D concert movie ended up grossing a very impressive $31 million at the box office, producing a photo finish with one of the most reliably predictable assets in the movie business, an Adam Sandler comedy.
With Sony's Just Go With It also yielding an estimated $31 million, this weekend's box-office championship will be decided by the Monday-morning "actuals."
Any way it's sliced, however, it was a big weekend for Hollywood, which has sucked badly in the first six weeks of 2011.
In fact, the weekend was up 32 percent over the same frame last year -- the first time this year the domestic box office has been in the positive.
Things were so great that even a CG-animated movie about lawn gnomes that had been hanging around the Disney lot in Development Hell for the better part of a decade, Gnomeo & Juliet, blew the doors off its own pre-release estimates with a boffo $25.5 million opening.
Yeah, lawn gnomes doing Shakespeare. Go figure.
That one was actually easy to see coming: There hasn't been a movie for kids released since Yogi Bear, which was way back in mid-December, so the market was hungry…even for a lawn-gnome-themed Shakespeare adaptation.
The only other movie released wide this weekend was Focus' The Eagle, which starred Channing Tatum as a ranking Roman Army officer in need of conquest.
The movie was cheap to make (around $25 million) and took in only around $8.6 million.
But the big winner this weekend was Bieber, which came from a new division at Paramount, called Insurge, which is designed to get movies off the ground cheaply and quickly.
In fact, Never Say Never took only six months from concept to premiere, costing Paramount only $13 million to produce and $20 million to market.
The premiere almost exactly matched that of Disney's Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert film three years ago. That movie, titled Best of Both Worlds got out of the gate with a huge $31.5 million opening, but ended up grossing only around $70 million worldwide -- still good money by anyone's standards.
Long story short: get ready for more Justin Bieber at the box office.
Here's how the box office shaped up this weekend next to our Thursday predictions:
|Just Go With It ||Made: $31.0M ||We predicted: $32.0M|
|Justin Bieber: Never Say Never ||Made: $31.0M ||We predicted: $17.0M|
|Gnomeo & Juliet ||Made: $25.5M ||We predict: $16.5M|
|The Eagle ||Made: $8.6M ||We predicted: $6.5M|
|The Roommate ||Made: $8.4M ||We predicted: $7.0M|
|The King's Speech ||Made: $7.4M ||We predict: $6.2M|
|No Strings Attached ||Made: $5.6M ||We predicted: $5.0M|
|Sanctum ||Made: $5.1M ||We predicted: $5.5M|
|True Grit ||Made: $3.8M ||We predicted:NA|
|The Green Hornet ||Made: $3.6M ||We predicted: $3.0M|