By Todd Cunningham
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - "Olympus Has Fallen" provided the biggest box office surprise so far this year with this weekend's $30 million opening, about $10 million above industry and analysts' projections.
Bigger may ultimately prove better when it comes to president-in-peril movies. Sony is in post-production on its similarly-themed Roland Emmerich film "White House Down," and the $150 million epic starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx is expected to be a blockbuster.
But it's good to be first, and the strong debut for "Olympus" is a coup for Film District, which marketed and distributed the $70 million Millennium Films production.
To put the success of "Olympus" in perspective, it easily topped the $25 million debut that Bruce Willis managed with "Good Day to Die Hard" in February. And its opening was bigger than the bows of Sylvester Stallone's "Bullet to the Head," Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Last Stand" and Jason Statham's "Parker" combined, according to Box Office Mojo.
It was the biggest opening ever for Film District, which was founded in September 2010 by Peter Schlessel, in partnership with Graham King and Timothy Headington.
The Film District marketing department, led by Christine Birch, identified the target demographic as older, male and maybe military, and nailed it. The "Olympus" audience was 73 percent over 25 and 53 percent male. A series of special pre-release screenings at military bases paid off, too -- cities with large armed forces populations like Norfolk, Va., El Paso, Texas, and Honolulu all overperformed, Film District distribution chief Jim Orr told TheWrap.
The gender breakdown suggests "Olympus" turned into a date-night movie, no small feat for an R-rated action film.
"I think Gerard Butler gets a lot of credit for that," Orr said. "He's an action star."
That's something Butler may have needed to be reminded of. He's never been able to match the box-office success of 2007's "The 300," and was coming off a string of misfires in non-action roles.
He topped a first-rate ensemble cast that included Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster and Ashley Judd. But the biggest name - and one the marketing campaign focused on -- was director Antoine Fuqua.
The "Training Day" director attracted an audience, and they loved the film. It received an "A-" CinemaScore, very strong for an action film.
"When we saw the Saturday numbers coming in, we knew word of mouth was a factor," Orr said.
Fuqua didn't waste any time either, which was critical, since it was important for "Olympus" to beat the bigger, more-hyped "White House Down" to market.
"That made a difference," Orr said, "and gave us some flexibility." April 5 was the original release date for "Olympus," but Film District switched off that to avoid "The Heat," the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy FBI movie, and get in ahead of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," which opens Thursday.
"The Heat" subsequently shifted its release date to June 28 - the same day "White House Down" debuts.
The irony of dueling movies and dates isn't lost on Orr. He was at Paramount back in 1998, when that studio debuted "Deep Impact," a movie about a giant lethal mass hurtling toward earth. Two months later, Disney rolled out "Armageddon" - about a giant lethal mass hurtling toward earth.
For the record, there was plenty of room in the market for both films. "Armageddon" opened to $36 million and went to make $201 million domestically. "Deep Impact" opened to $41 million, and made $140 million.
"I sure don't think our opening will hurt 'White House Down,'" Orr said. "In fact, I think the buzz around our success could help it."