For against-the-odds inspiration, it wasn't as thrilling as the saga of 52-year-old Dewey Bozella, the boxer who spent half his life in prison on a trumped-up murder charge and, after being exonerated, won a unanimous decision Saturday night in his first professional fight. But Real Steel, last week's No. 1 film starring Hugh Jackman as an aging ex-boxer who trains a discarded robot to a championship, bucked the
odds to retain its crown and defeat the favored challenger, a remake of the 1984 hit Footloose, at the North American box office. The weekend tallies, according to preliminary studio estimates: $16.3 million for the battling cyborg, $16.1 million for the dancing teen. The final numbers come out Monday.

Compared with the same weekend in 2010, though, this one was an undercard mismatch massacre. With $50.4 million in its debut frame a year ago, Jackass 3D not only creamed Jackman, it earned more money than the combined gross of this weekend's top four films. Total box-office revenue was down 38% from this time last year, and all three major new releases had the tinge of flop-stink. The Thing, a prequel to the 1951 science-fiction classic and its 1982 remake, opened to just $8.7 million and scared no one but its sponsors at Universal. The Big Year, a birdwatching buddy film starring veteran ticket-sellers Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, pulled off one of the most dismal first weekends in recent memory: the $40-million comedy lured just $3.3-million worth of paying customers.

The subpar B-minuses that The Thing and The Big Year received from the CinemaScore poll of early moviegoers should spell finis to any chance those movies had for profitability. Footloose, though, got an "A" rating, suggesting it may stay around for a while. The story of a Boston teen who battles a ban on dancing in a nervous Georgia town, the film heard crickets at theaters in New York City and Los Angeles but scored in the heartland; it registered its top tallies in Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City.

With females accounting for 75% of its audience, Footloose is clicking with mother-daughter combos, even as Real Steel has connected with fathers and sons. So has Moneyball's subplot of a baseball executive and his yearning daughter. Indeed, six of the weekend's top 10 films — Real Steel, Footloose, Dolphin Tale, Moneyball, Courageous and The Lion King — have a strong family appeal. Older audiences are supporting two fall films from the Ocean's tandem: Brad Pitt's Moneyball and George Clooney's The Ides of March. All that's missing is the young male crowd, which used to be Hollywood's most reliable demographic and, except for the summer season, has been AWOL all year.

In the indie nanoworld, Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish-language The Skin I Live In, starring Antonio Banderas as a mad scientist and Elena Anaya as his beautiful patient, opened in six theaters to $231,000 and a $38,500 per-screen average — the best since The Tree of Life in May. The grisly procedural Texas Killing Fields suffered a dismembering first weekend of $9,600 at three venues.

And if Martin, Wilson and Black want some consolation for the disastrous debut of The Big Year, they should check the figures for Trespass, starring that cocktail of box-office poison Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman. This thriller about a married couple taken hostage earned just $18,200 at 10 theaters, for a puny per-screen ransom of (do the math) $1,820. Dewey Bozella could have out-punched this turkey if he were still handcuffed.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Real Steel, $16.3 million; $51.7 million, second week
2. Footloose, $16.1 million, first weekend
3. The Thing, $8.7 million, first weekend
4. The Ides of March, $7.5 million; $22.2 million, second week
5. Dolphin Tale, $6.3 million; $58.7 million, fourth week
6. Moneyball, $5.5 million; $57.7 million, fourth week
7. 50/50 $4.3 million; $24.3 million, third week
8. Courageous, $3.4 million; $21.4 million, third week
9. The Big Year, $3.3 million, first weekend
10. The Lion King, $2.7 million; $90.5 million, fifth week of rerelease