How Did 'Dolphin Tale' Take No. 1 at the Weekend Box Office?

Weak competition, the enduring appeal of family flicks, and Christian marketing each may have contributed to the film's success in its second week at theaters

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Warner Bros

Forget the rave reviews for new films about baseball and cancer, because American viewers just want to see animals. That, at least, seems to be the message from the past few weekends at the box office.

The weekends of September 16-18 and 23-25 both saw the 3D re-release of The Lion King grab top spot among moviegoers. This past weekend, that film slipped to the No. 3 position as Dolphin Tale—the feel-good Morgan Freeman/Harry Connick Jr. whale rehabilitation story—became No. 1, even though it was in the second week of its release.

Have kids' movies taken over the world? Kind of. But this time of year, competition is low: Few observers were shocked, for example, that the debut of 50/50, a comedy about cancer, brought in just $8.85 million. After all, it's a comedy about cancer. And take a look at past year's box offices around late September/early-October: family flicks Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs were in the No. 2 and No. 1 slots in 2010 and 2009, respectively. Before that, the Shia LaBeouf vehicle Eagle Eye, which had a huge teen audience, was raking in tens of millions of dollars for the same weekend.

The Los Angeles Times observes another trend that may be influencing box-office totals: Christian viewership.

Of the films that opened in theaters this weekend, the Christian drama "Courageous" had the most robust launch. ...

The weekend's box office results showed the power of faith-based films at the multiplex. Though "Dolphin Tale" does not have overtly spiritual themes, it was advertised to Christian families as well as those who home-school their children. " 'Dolphin Tale' had a faith-based marketing component to it and is respectful of faith-based audiences, but we don't design our movies for that audience," said Andrew Kosove, co-founder of Alcon Entertainment, which financed the movie for about $37 million.

Still, the film seemed to resonate with a religious audience. Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution for Warner Bros, noted that "Dolphin Tale" had "particular strength in Middle America and the South."

"Courageous" also played well in what Sony Distribution President Rory Bruer described as the heartland. The picture, made by sibling minister-filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, is about four police officers who look to God when devastated by a tragedy. Produced by Affirm Film, the Sony division that acquires projects with religious themes, the movie had a budget of only $2 million.

Elsewhere in that piece, a Sony executive speculates that a lot of families showed up for Courageous who haven't been to theaters since Fireproof, the 2008 film from the makers of Courageous.

As for Dream House, that haunted house flick that wasn't screened for critics despite featuring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in leading roles? And What's Your Number, the Anna Faris rom-com with a secretly science fiction premise? Both bombed, landing in the No. 6 and No. 8 spots respectively.

It's worth nothing that Dolphin Tale's weekend haul of $14.3 million is pretty low, and amounts to less what each of the top three films this weekend last year had made. But Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood reports that the weekend's total ticket profits were up 10 percent over last year's. Movies all the way down to No. 12, The Help, brought in more than $3 million. So, fewer dollars per big film, but more mediocre film with OK ticket sales: Turns out, the weekend of Dolphin Tale is also the weekend of the long tail.