Box Office Guru Wrapup: Lone Survivor Scores a Surprisingly Impressive Debut

Hercules is ignored; expanding Her and Inside Llewyn Davis underwhelm.

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This weekend, U.S. audiences surprised industry observers by flooding multiplexes in larger numbers than expected to see Mark Wahlberg's new Navy SEAL thriller Lone Survivor, which expanded nationwide and captured the number one spot with a sensational performance. Three other films that debuted in limited release in December tried their luck with mainstream audiences as well by expanding into wide play, but they were met with varying results with more offbeat pictures delivering dull results. The frame's only brand new wide release, the adventure epic The Legend of Hercules, opened in fifth place with lackluster results.

Doubling expectations, Lone Survivor seized the top spot with an estimated $38.5M giving the Universal release the second biggest January opening weekend of all-time. Movies rarely debut to more than $30M in the first month of the year with 2008's Cloverfield being the best ever with $40.1M. Playing in 2,875 theaters, the R-rated hit averaged a sizzling $13,395 per site. Cume including two weeks of play at solo runs in New York and Los Angeles is $38.9M.

What was surprising was not that it took the number one slot; it was widely expected to do that. It was the amazing amount of ticket sales that really blew the industry away. A debut in the high teen millions was expected, which itself would have been solid and enough to take the top spot. But audiences responded favorably to the patriotic themes of this story of American soldiers in peril and to the strong reviews. Survivor follows in the footsteps of other military movies with good reviews that platformed in December and then waited for mid-January to attack nationwide. Last year, Zero Dark Thirty did the same thing this very weekend, while in 2002, Black Hawk Down used that strategy to great success. All opened wide at number one with well over $20M each.

Dropping to the bridesmaid position, but still holding up exceptionally well, was Disney's mammoth blockbuster Frozen which dipped only 23% in its seventh wide weekend to an estimated $15.1M. The animated smash has hauled in a stellar $317.7M setting a new record for the studio as the highest gross ever for a toon in its initial release. The old record has been held for nearly 20 years by The Lion King which grossed a staggering $312.8M from the summer of 1994 through early 1995 during its first run in theaters. Of course, Frozen benefits from higher ticket prices and 3D surcharges. With subsequent IMAX and 3D releases, King still is the studio's top toon with a lifetime gross of $422.8M. Anna and Elsa have now climbed up to number 34 on the list of all-time domestic blockbusters.

With great audience buzz and no competition for kids, Frozen has been raking in the dough from Thanksgiving through Christmas and beyond. The international run has been equally impressive with the snow sisters breaking the $700M global mark this weekend with much more still to come. Overseas, the cume has risen to $394.6M putting the worldwide tally at $712.3M with big runs still to come from top-tier markets where Disney animation really sells. On February 5, China will gets its launch while Japan closes out the international run when it opens on March 15. Disney/Pixar's Monsters University grossed over $90M in Japan last year.

The Wolf of Wall Street scored another good round of sales with an estimated $9M in its third weekend. Down 32%, the Paramount release has banked $78.6M to date and is headed past the $100M mark -- the third straight Martin-Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio film to that. Also holding up well and playing to much of the same audience was American Hustle with an estimated $8.6M, down 31%, for a $101.6M total as the Sony release crossed the century mark over the weekend. Both films could earn Academy Award nominations for Best Picture this Thursday and will have plenty of weeks of awards season still ahead to turn those nods into extra box office.

Opening in fifth place was the frame's only brand new wide release, The Legend of Hercules. The epic PG-13 adventure did not make much of a dent at multiplexes as it bowed to an estimated $8.6M from 2,104 theaters for a mediocre $4,087 average. 49% of the business came from 3D screens and the audience was predictably more male. Studio research showed that the Lionsgate release played 57% male and 55% 25 and older. The CinemaScore grade was a dull B-. Another Hercules movie is on tap for this summer with Dwayne Johnson headlining a bigger project set for July 25 from director Brett Ratner.

Dropping 49% in its fifth weekend was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with an estimated $8M for a new domestic cume of $242.2M. The Middle Earth tentpole is running 13% behind its predecessor. Overseas, Smaug pushed its international tally to $566M as the global gross surged past the $800M mark to $808.2M with China and Japan still to open on February 21 and 28, respectively.

Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts saw their collaboration August: Osage County enjoy a good national expansion this weekend with an estimated $7.3M from 905 locations for a $8,083 average. Cume for the The Weinstein Co. including the platform release since late December is $7.9M. Reviews have been good but not exceptional.

Disney's Saving Mr. Banks followed with an estimated $6.6M, off only 24%, for a $68.9M cume. A Best Picture nod from the Academy could give Tom Hanks yet another $100M+ hit. Paramount rounded out the top ten with a pair of franchise flicks. Horror pic Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones fell an understandably steep 66% in its second weekend to an estimated $6.3M while Will Ferrell's Anchorman 2 dropped 43% to an estimated $6.1M. Totals are $28.5M and $118.5M, respectively.

The acclaimed Spike Jonze film Her fared poorly in its nationwide expansion grossing an estimated $5.4M from 1,729 locations for a weak $3,129 average. Failing to crack the top ten, the R-rated film starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson did not connect with mainstream audiences due to low starpower (on-screen) and an offbeat concept. Reviews have been sensational and Her has also picked up many awards and nominations during awards season, but multiplex crowds did not pay to try it out. The CinemaScore grade was a disappointing B-. But if the Warner Bros. release were to land a Best Picture Oscar nomination this week, its commercial fortunes could change somewhat.

The Coen brothers did not fare well in national release either with their critics darling Inside Llewyn Davis which expanded from 156 to 729 locations grossing an estimated $1.9M for a weak $2,573 average. The CBS Films release has banked $9.3M to date. Davis and Her were both wildly loved by film critics, but their arthouse casts and offbeat stories limited their appeal to paying mainstream moviegoers. Extended releases like these are risky given how many weeks of national TV ads must be purchased to support them.

Faring well outside the top ten was the juggernaut The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which last week surpassed Iron Man 3 to become the highest grossing film released in 2013. This weekend added another $4.6M, according to estimates, pushing the cume up to $414M putting it at number 13 on the all-time domestic list. A final of about $425M seems likely with another installment being prepped for release this November.

The top ten films grossed an estimated $114.1M which was up 2% from last year when Zero Dark Thirty opened wide at number one with $24.4M; and up 8% from 2012 when Contraband debuted in the top spot with $24.3M.

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