Weekend Wrap-Up
The Hobbit and Five Armies Barely Bail Out Box Office
By John Hamann
December 21, 2014

Dwarves don't dance.

It’s the weekend before Christmas and the best thing I can say is that the weekend should have been huge. Instead we get Exodus in freefall and a batch of new releases – all with better performing predecessors.

The big new weekend release is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which was released on Wednesday. This marked the first time a Hobbit or Lord of the Rings film opened mid-week since Return of the King opened to $124.1 million over five days in 2003. Openers on Friday included Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Annie. The original Night at the Museum opened on December 22, 2006, debuting to $30.4 million; however, its first Sunday was Christmas Eve, traditionally one of the slowest moviegoing days all year. Annie is a little harder to point to a predecessor. The original debuted way back in 1982; when it went wide (albeit at only 1,102 venues), it earned $5.3 million in 1982 dollars, or about $15 million in 2014 dollars. If its $13,300 venue average is divided by two and applied to the 3,116 screens this version of Annie received, the debut would have been $20.7 million. Let’s keep all of these numbers in mind as we look at the weekend results.

Finishing number one this weekend is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, as Peter Jackson’s third film in the second middle earth trilogy debuted strongly this weekend. The Battle of the Five Armies opened on Tuesday with a preview tally of $11.2 million and a combined Tuesday/Wednesday of $24.5 million. Sounds like a good start, right?
While the previous Hobbit films were Friday openers, all of the Lord of the Rings titles opened on Wednesday, and Five Armies posted the second worst Tuesday/Wednesday of the series, beating only the first Lord of the Rings flick, The Fellowship of the Ring, which earned $18.2 million on opening day (inflation puts Five Armies into the basement spot, but I won’t go there). The Thursday number came in at $9.95 million, again, the lowest since The Fellowship of the Ring earned $9.7 million. The Battle of the Five Armies earned $34.4 million before the weekend proper had begun.

The Friday figure came in at $16.6 million, again losing to all Middle Earth flicks except Fellowship of the Ring ($14.2 million). It was $20 million behind The Hobbit ($37.1 million) and $15 million behind Desolation of Smaug ($31.2 million); however, both of those films were Friday openers with Thursday previews. Battle of the Five Armies finished the Friday-to-Sunday portion of the weekend with $56.2 million, and a five day total of $90.6 million. While that is the lowest three day take since Fellowship of the Ring ($47.2 million), the five-day take beats the first three days of both The Hobbit ($84.6 million) and Smaug ($73.6 million).

So while there is good news for Warner Bros. and New Line, this is not a "singing and dancing dwarves" sort of result. Return of the King, the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, popped versus Two Towers, earning $124.1 million over five days. The Two Towers earned $102 million, meaning that Return of the King increased over it by 20%. With the change in release strategy for the third film to a Wednesday release, the studio is able to avoid these comparisons that show The Hobbit series to be a shrinking daisy.

With a production cost for all three Hobbit films of $745 million, Warner Bros. would likely need to see a worldwide return of $2.2 billion before seeing a theatrical profit from the series. The first two Hobbit films earned $1.98 billion worldwide, so the pressure was off The Battle of the Five Armies to realize a huge profit. In fact, the film likely broke the barrier it needed this weekend. That means the remaining dollars coming from Five Armies will be profit and will land somewhere in the billion dollar range. Five Armies earned a Smaug-like A- Cinemascore, while reviews were just above the 60% mark - much like the first Hobbit release. Regardless, with Christmas falling on Thursday this year, Warner Bros. should see a huge result over the Christmas season, especially if fanboys show up for repeat viewings.

That puts Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb into second this weekend, with a result closer to Annie than I expected. The Ben Stiller adventure-comedy earned $5.6 million on Friday night, which is about 55% lower than what the first Night at the Museum earned when it opened on December 22, 2006. Despite the similarities around the opening weekend, the difference between the original and the three-quel is that the original’s first Sunday was Christmas Eve. It opened to $12.1 million, had a Saturday of $12.6 million, and then bottomed out on Christmas Eve with $5.7 million. While Secret of the Tomb had a much lower Friday and Saturday, it was helped by a Sunday that not only wasn’t Christmas Eve, it was heading into a Monday where the kids were off school, and thus, the internal multiplier (weekend gross divided by Friday gross) was higher. The original Night at the Museum had a multiplier of 2.5, Secret of the Tomb enjoyed a multiplier of 3.08.

In the end, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb had a weekend take of $17.3 million, a world away from the original’s $30.4 million and the sequel’s $54.2 million. The good news is that a film like this should play extremely well over the holiday season given that the kids are out of school, and with The Interview dismantled, this is the closest thing we have to comedy over the Christmas season. The original turned its $30 million opening into $250 million domestic, despite facing a difficult schedule (first Sunday was Christmas Eve, second Sunday was New Year’s Eve). Despite this, the original earned more than $10 million nine times out of its first 11 days of release. That is definitely not going to happen this time around, as Secret of the Tomb will likely not see a $10 million plus day, ever. Reviews were so-so at 49%, and the Cinemascore is a B+. The male-dominated cast is likely going to steer girls to Into the Woods come Thursday, so this one is going to have to work hard to match its $127 million production budget stateside.

That brings us to Annie, which finishes third this weekend. I find it sad that this is the Sony film the North Koreans left us with this weekend, as this reaches an Alvin and the Chipmunks low for me. Somehow, business wasn’t bad for Annie, as it got started on Friday with $5.3 million, only a few hundred thousand away from what Night at the Museum 3 earned. Annie finished the weekend with a decent $16.3 million from 3,116 theaters, 670 less than Secret of the Tomb received. Given the awful reviews this pile of dreck received and the string of bad luck Sony has been having, the studio has to be ecstatic with this result, as the kids seem to be coming out to see it. It received an A- Cinemascore, which is good news heading into the biggest 12 days of box office we should see all year. $100 million domestic may even be possible for Annie, which again would be fabulous for a movie that cost $65 million to make. Sony likely could not have dealt with another disaster, and they have avoided that with the first weekend of Annie.

Fourth is Exodus: Gods and Kings, and is neither a god nor a king of the box office as it imploded this weekend. After debuting to $24.1 million last weekend, the Ridley Scott flick earned only $8.1 million this weekend, giving it a drop of 67%. This is terrible news for the $140 million epic, as it will now struggle to earn $75 million domestically, which means it will have to earn $325 million plus overseas to find a profit. With The Hobbit dominating overseas, that’s going to be difficult as well, leaving Fox with an uphill battle to find redemption.

Fifth is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, which has a decent hold thanks to the implosion of Exodus and some weak performances from the openers. After a $12.7 million fourth frame last weekend, Katniss and company fell only 39% this weekend to $7.8 million. The total for the $125 million film has now reached $289.2 million and should be a lock for $300 million. It has also passed the $350 mark overseas.

Reese Witherspoon’s Wild is sixth, but likely didn’t pop the way Fox Searchlight was hoping it would when it moved from 116 venues last weekend to 1,016 this weekend. Wild improved on last weekend’s result of $1.5 million by 171% as it pulled in $4.2 million. The bad news is that it moves from a venue average of $13,198 last weekend to $3,911 this weekend. Fox Searchlight will have to hope that strong word-of-mouth propels it through the busy Christmas season.

Like Exodus, the result for Top Five also went in the toilet this weekend. After debuting last weekend to $6.9 million, the Chris Rock vehicle lost 48% of its audience this weekend, leaving it with $3.6 million. Top Five dipped despite Paramount adding 300+ screens. The dramedy now has a running total of $12.5 million, and unless something odd happens, it will top out with about $25 million.

Animated films Big Hero 6 and Penguins of Madagascar finish with very similar results. Big Hero 6 finished eighth, picking up $3.6 million, and dropping 48%. Penguins of Madagascar earned $3.5 million and fell 51%. Big Hero 6 improved its take to $190.4 million, while Penguins grew its total to $64.2 million. While there are no new animated entries coming for Christmas, there is a lot of family fare. Both Big Hero 6 and Penguins may do okay over the holidays; however, with the lower weekend totals, the impact of the Christmas bump will be limited for both.

A Bollywood fantasy/comedy finished in 10th this weekend, taking advantage of a weak bottom half of the top 10. P.K., a movie that features spaceships and singing, earned $3.5 million from only 272 venues. It had almost as strong of a per location average as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as its number was $12,868 compared to Hobbit 3's $14,508.

In limited release, The Imitation Game added only nine screens, and earned $1.6 million. That gives it a dip of 36% weekend-to-weekend, and it should expand shortly. It has a current take of $19.8 million. Inherent Vice stayed at the five venues it had last weekend. Last weekend, the Paul Thomas Anderson flick earned $328,000 from those theaters; this weekend, it earns $147,000.

Overall this weekend, the top 12 is much stronger than last weekend, and is a lot strong the last time the holiday season had Christmas land on a Thursday (2008). That year, the weekend before Christmas earned only $80.7 million, after a Jim Carrey flick (Yes Man), a Will Smith movie (Seven Pounds) and animated feature (The Tale of Despereaux) all flopped. This weekend, the top 12 earned $128.3 million, almost all of which came from the top three films. That's still quite a bit less than last year on the same weekend, which was $137.1 million.

Christmas Day brings more films, despite The Interview’s disappearing act. Unbroken unspools at more than 3,000 venues, and Into the Woods debuts on more than 2,000 screens. The box office will need to rely on this weekend’s openers as well for theater owners to have a happy Christmas.