Weekend Wrap-Up
Box Office Sleeps as Force Awakens
By John Hamann
December 13, 2015

The real star of the Hunger Games franchise.

The force just awakened, and it swallowed In the Heart of the Sea whole.

With only a few (long) days now before the launch of the much-heralded Star Wars: The Force Awakens, moviegoers did not support the weekend’s lone release – or much of anything else. The lamb to the slaughter this weekend is Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, starring Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, but the box office cratered, as the inevitable vacuum appears before what could be the biggest release of the year (it can never match the hype).

The box office vacuum, which sucks the life out of the current weekend and pushes the box office fortunes of the future weekend release even further ahead, happens for two different reasons. A soft schedule culminates in a massive flop, reducing overall business the weekend prior to the bigger film. Then, that future film fills the gap. The other reason is the simple massiveness of the future film.

Take the first Avengers, for example. The weekend prior to its record breaking release, four films debuted, all on more than 2,200 screens, and the average opening was about $9 million. The films that opened the weekend prior to Marvel’s Avengers weren’t bad – The Pirates! A Band of Misfits was 86% fresh, and comedy The Five Year Engagement was 63% fresh. The other two openers were star-driven – Jason Statham in Safe and John Cusack in The Raven. Box office history is stacked with these examples – Hellboy 2 prior to The Dark Knight, Pain and Gain prior to Iron Man 3, Spy before Jurassic World – all of these films left money on the table before the crushing wave of the bigger release hit.

The other aspect of the vacuum comes with an extremely slow weekend followed by a surprise breakout success. My favorite example of that came in 1998 when The Waterboy opened to $40 million over the first weekend in November. The previous weekend was Halloween, and the box office cratered, with a lone horror release (John Carpenter’s Vampires) flailing with $9.8 million in top spot before falling to eighth in its second weekend. The top 12 films over that Halloween weekend only earned $45 million, which set the stage for the crowning of Adam Sandler the following weekend.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has both of these scenarios occurring this weekend. We have the soft opener with In The Heart of the Sea, and we have the soft overall box office occurring this weekend, as the top 12 films could only muster $68.7 million – near the $62.7 million earned over Halloween weekend (with the 31st on a Saturday) and the $65.9 million earned over the first weekend in September. Given the amount of new product coming next weekend (10,000+ venues will have new movies), the gross of The Force Awakens remains a guess, but we know for sure that this weekend lives in its shadow and in misery.

It is a very close race to be the #1 film of the weekend as In The Heart of the Sea finished very close to the four-weekend-old Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. In fact, current estimates have the Jennifer Lawrence film out front, but that could change once actuals are reported tomorrow. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 earned $11.3 million in weekend four, giving it a decline compared to last weekend of 40%. Part 1’s fourth frame finished with $12.7 million and a drop of 42%.

The question now is whether this version of The Hunger Games can survive long enough to make it to $300 million. It currently has $244.5 million in the tank, so it will need some serious Christmas help to get it there. The bigger venues will be lost next weekend, but the fanbase shouldn’t be completely swallowed by The Force Awakens. Part 1 earned about $40 million between Friday, December 19th and Sunday, January 4th last year. Part 2 should earn about $35 million, and then another $15 million from the remainder of its run, which would leave it just short of the tri-century mark. It has already crossed the $300 million mark overseas, but it's still an extreme long shot to meet the $755 million worldwide that Part 1 earned.

Second spot – for now – is In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s whale movie. On paper, this likely works as a December 11th release – it has an Oscar-caliber director and a story with Moby Dick-leanings that should acquire Oscar’s attention. Unfortunately, the finished product was not embraced by critics – and rejected might be the more apt way to put it. The result is a weekend take of $11 million from 3,103 venues, giving it a lame duck average of $3,547. Heart of the Sea is only 43% fresh at RottenTomatoes, and when you look at top critics, the score goes down to 38% fresh. Because it wasn’t to be embraced over award season, Warner Bros. didn’t promote it enough, and leaves it as a kind of lame duck prior to the release of Star Wars. This boat was left at sea with no paddle – a marketing campaign that didn’t reach far enough - and the film was left to float on the ocean.

If there is good news, it would seem that audiences like it, which could help a little over the holiday season. The Cinemascore came in at a decent B+ which indicates good worth-o- mouth, but with the subdued debut weekend, there won’t be enough gas in the tank to propel it forward. There are two big problems for Warner Bros., and one of them is the budget. This film cost a massive $100 million to make, and it will be lucky to earn $50 million stateside. Problem number two is that In the Heart of the Sea didn’t have the overseas impact it was hoping to. It earned only $39 million as it debuted in dozens of territories, which means the worldwide gross is probably not going to save it. Village Roadshow, Roth Films and Imagine are going to take this one on the chin, likely losing $50 million.

The Good Dinosaur is third this weekend, as the animated film is struggling compared to other Pixar releases. This weekend, the Disney flick took in $10.5 million and fell 32% compared to the previous frame. The Good Dinosaur has now earned $89.7 million domestically against its $200 million budget, and it has also added $78 million from overseas coffers.

Creed is becoming the good news story for the month of December, and there’s more good news to come. After opening in third with $29.6 million three weekends ago and then falling to fourth last weekend with $15 million (despite an impressive 50% post-Thanksgiving drop), Creed holds steady in fourth place. Creed earned another $10.1 million this weekend, giving it a solid drop of 32%. The Golden Globe nomination for Stallone’s performance and presence on critics’ lists is propelling it forward. The film is now in the enviable position to perform strongly over the Christmas season. With a gross to date of $79.3 million, Creed is a lock for $100 million and could see as much as $125 million. The rollout overseas is slow, but success in America will only help it over there.

Krampus is fifth, as the Christmas horror release spends a second weekend in the top five. The Universal release did not catch on as much as some hoped – after opening to $16.3 million last weekend, it fell 51% to $8 million this weekend, which means this is no Gremlins. Still, the $15 million picture will win out due to the strong opening. It has a gross-to-date of $28.2 million and has picked up a few more million overseas.

Spectre drops to sixth this weekend, as the James Bond film spends its sixth weekend in release. This time around, the Daniel Craig film earned $4 million, dropping 28%. The domestic total has now reached $190.8 million and the overseas amount has surpassed $629 million.

Like last weekend, The Night Before holds quite nicely, but the amounts aren’t big enough to lift the domestic score up. This weekend, the Seth Rogen comedy earned another $3.9 million and dropped a slim 22%. The $25 million Night Before has now earned $38.2 million and will continue to kick around these types of numbers until Christmas.

The Peanuts Movie continues to hold on to a top ten spot this weekend. Charlie Brown and gang pulled in another $2.6 million, dropping 26% in the process. The total for the animated release has now reached $125 million, with the majority of its overseas rollout still to come.

Spotlight expands further this weekend, adding another 109 venues as it enjoys its three Golden Globe nominations. The box office result is a gross of $2.5 million, which gives it a drop of only 10% compared to last weekend. The total for Spotlight has now reached $20.3 million as it continues to build steam.

Brooklyn is 10th, and uses its Golden Globe nomination to hold like Spotlight. The Saoirse Ronan flick added another $2 million this weekend and fell 19%. This small, word-of-mouth driven release has now earned $14.3 million.

In limited release this weekend, The Big Short makes a big impact. Despite being out to only eight venues, the financial comedy/drama picked up $720,000, giving it a boffo venue average of $90,000 – and a likely Best Picture nomination. Paramount could have something here if they treat it right over the holidays, but this is a fantastic start to be sure.

The box office has all the elements of being in really good shape prior to Star Wars, with films like Creed keeping the momentum going. On the other hand, the overall box office also showed that audiences were holding for next weekend, which puts The Force Awakens in a very good position. The top 12 this weekend could only garner $68.7 million, one of the lower amounts so far this year.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will see more than 4,000 venues next weekend, and theaters will be shelving smaller films to accommodate demand. There are other films debuting, including Sisters with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, a movie that is supported by strong early reviews. Alvin and The Chipmunks also opens, and while I think the shine has come off the franchise, the demographic positioning and weaker-than-expected performance from The Good Dinosaur could push it forward.