A late-summer horror tale took possession of the weekend box office, as Hollywood quietly wound down a busy season that turned out to be not so busy.
The Possession debuted as the No. 1 movie with $21.3 million over the four-day Labor Day weekend, according to studio estimates. The Lionsgate fright flick stars Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as parents of a girl possessed by a demon.
Opening in second-place with $13 million was the Weinstein Co. bootlegging drama Lawless, with Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pearce in a story of moonshiners pursued by a corrupt lawman during Prohibition.
It was a typically slow Labor Day weekend, ending a summer that failed to live up to Hollywood's expectations.
Studio executives started the season with projections of record business. But revenues dropped 3 percent compared to summer 2011, while attendance was at its lowest in at least 20 years, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
Labor Day weekend revenues totaled $134 million, down 3.4 percent from last year's holiday, when The Help led with $19.9 million.
Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian said overall domestic revenues for the summer season, from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, came in at $4.275 billion, down from a record $4.4 billion in summer 2011.
The attendance picture was even worse, after factoring in this year's higher ticket prices. The number of movie tickets sold this summer was about 533 million, down 4 percent from 2011. That figure is the lowest since Dergarabedian began compiling summer figures 20 years ago.
"We talk about summer being product-driven, and it's all about the movies," Dergarabedian said. "While it started off on a really high note, as summer went on, it seemed like the moviegoers were less and less interested in the movies being released."
Back in May, when the superhero sensation The Avengers launched the season with a record $207.4 million weekend, Hollywood insiders predicted their best summer ever, as a lineup of huge titles was set to hit theaters week after week.
While The Avengers and superhero films The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man led the season, and movies such as Ted and Brave topped the $200 million mark, many other movies fell flat.
Big stars delivered big busts, with Adam Sandler's That's My Boy and Johnny Depp's Dark Shadows. Action movies such as Battleship and Total Recall also flopped.
There were some smaller surprise successes, including the anti-Barack Obama documentary 2016: Obama's America, which expanded into broader nationwide release and came in at No. 8 on Labor Day weekend, with $7.1 million. That raised its total to $20.3 million since the documentary opened in a handful of theaters in mid-July.
The weekend's other new wide release, the family flick The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, flopped with just $601,545, averaging a tiny $278 a screen in 2,160 theaters — one of the poorest openings in recent box office history. By comparison, The Possession averaged $7,564 in 2,816 cinemas.
Most scary movies draw their biggest crowd on opening-day Friday, as horror fans turn out for the debut; business then often drops off on Saturday. The Possession bucked that pattern as the audience grew larger on Saturday, then held up solidly through Sunday and Monday.
"Horror films normally don't do that," said Richie Fay, head of distribution for Lionsgate. "If you play to that audience and that audience is satisfied, they talk about it and they come back on Saturday, or their friends come back with them on Saturday."
Warner Bros. just opened The Dark Knight Rises in China and Italy, lifting the Batman blockbuster back to the No. 1 spot internationally with $46.4 million and raising its overseas total to $575 million.
The Dark Knight Rises took in an additional $7.9 million domestically over Labor Day weekend, pushing its domestic haul to $433.2 million. The film joined 2008's The Dark Knight as a $1 billion worldwide hit, with its total now at a few million dollars more than its predecessor's.