The success of these films and the staying power of “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” and “Annie” were surprising given that this holiday season faced unprecedented headwinds. Some of these pictures, such as “Unbroken,” with its brutal depiction of life in Japan’s World War II prison camps, and “Into the Woods,” with a body count to rival “The Sopranos,” fall short of being typical yuletide confections.
“There were a lot of debuts that were way bigger than expected, and it speaks to the strength of the market at this time of year and how people go to the movies almost as a reflex,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
The Christmas box office also unfolded against the chaotic rollout of “The Interview,” an R-rated comedy that suffered a terrorist threat, a cancellation and a subsequent revival. Ultimately, the film about an assassination plot on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had a jerry-rigged release across 331 arthouse and independent theaters, where it earned $2.8 million. It debuted simultaneously on digital platforms such as YouTube and Google Play and was added to Apple’s iTunes on Sunday, though it’s not playing on cable providers or Amazon. Sony Pictures, the studio behind the film, did not say how much it generated from its on-demand release.
The box office results may have been modest, but Sony says getting the film seen was accomplishment enough.
“The fact that we were able to get it done and released in so many formats, and made it happen despite the odds, is something we feel good about,” said Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures president of worldwide distribution.
Despite those challenges, the overall box office will be up 7% over last year’s Christmas period, with ticket sales topping out at $211 million.
Once again it was Peter Jackson and his Middle-earth finale that cast the biggest shadow over multiplexes, as “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” marched to $41.4 million in its second weekend in theaters. The New Line and MGM co-production has picked up $168.5 million domestically.
“Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s account of Olympian Louis Zamperini’s harrowing efforts to survive his bomber plane’s ocean crash and later imprisonment by the Japanese, picked up $31.7 million across 3,131 locations this weekend. The Universal release cost $65 million to produce and has brought in $47.3 million since debuting on Christmas.
“This was a labor of love, so it’s so exciting to see audiences embrace it the way that they have,” said Nikki Rocco, distribution chief at Universal. “We worked really hard with Angie and in the press leading up to this to let audiences know this isn’t a World War II film. It’s about the theme of ‘if you can take it, you can make it.'”
“Unbroken” scored the third highest Christmas weekend opening ever and attracted an audience that was 71% over the age of 25 and 52% female. It arrived at its impressive box office numbers despite lacking a big-name star among the cast and after being snubbed by many awards groups.
In contrast, Disney’s “Into the Woods” got a lift from a star-heavy crew that includes Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick. The $50 million production brought in $31 million from 2,440 locations, securing third place on the box office charts. It has made $46.1 million since debuting on Thursday.
Its origins as a hit Broadway musical may have helped bring in older theater lovers for whom Stephen Sondheim is close to godliness, while Walt Disney Studios was also able to devise a fantastical marketing campaign highlighting the picture’s fairy tale elements to entice children. Adults comprised 51% of the opening weekend crowd, while families made up 38%.
The film’s dark hues were part of its appeal, noted Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis. The studio’s testing indicated that the second half of the film, which explores what happens after happily ever after, is what resonated most potently with moviegoers.
“We went down the path of owning that,” said Hollis. “It wouldn’t have been as dark without it, but the complexion of the movie would be different and it wouldn’t be fueling the kind of conversation that’s driving business.”
Among family film holdovers, Fox’s “Night at the Museum” sequel pulled in $20.6 million, pushing its total to $55.3 million. Sony’s “Annie” made $16.6 million, a 5% jump from its debut. The musical remake has earned $45.8 million since premiering on Dec. 19.
The week’s other wide release, “The Gambler,” was dwarfed by the competition, earning $9.3 million for the weekend from 2,478 locations. The Paramount release cost a modest $25 million to produce and has made $14.3 million since opening on Christmas.
Best picture contender “The Imitation Game” rode Oscar buzz to strong box office as it expanded from 34 to 747 theaters, earning $10.6 million over the weekend. The Weinstein Company film about code breaker Alan Turing has made $14.7 million in five weeks of release and is outpacing “The King’s Speech” at a similar point in its rollout. “The Imitation Game” will double its theater count by Jan. 9.
The studio was less successful with its other Christmas release, “Big Eyes.” The story of painter Margaret Keane and her huckster husband earned roughly $3 million from 1,307 locations. It has made a meager $4.4 million since debuting on Christmas.
“It’s the kind of film that takes time for everybody to get to it,” said Erik Lomis, distribution chief for the studio. “It’s a good film for an older, smart audience, and there’s another holiday week for people to see it.”
In limited release, “American Sniper” picked up an impressive $850,000 for the four-day period and a $212,500 per-screen average. The Clint Eastwood film about a heroic U.S. Navy SEAL ranks as the largest limited-release Christmas debut in history.
“Clint knocked it out of the park,” said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. “It’s very emotional, it’s very patriotic, and it’s one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made.”
Paramount Pictures’ “Selma” also benefited from enthusiastic critical notices. The Civil Rights era drama made $590,000 from 19 locations this weekend and has earned $912,000 in its first four days of release. The studio will add a few additional markets next week such as Baltimore and Chicago before expanding nationally on Jan. 9.
“From the moment I saw this movie, I knew it would be an Oscar contender,” said Megan Colligan, president of worldwide distribution and marketing at Paramount. “January is such a great play period. We kept our powder dry. We didn’t overspend to open in 19 locations.”