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Top Ten Takeaways: ‘Hobbit’ Finale Surges, Why Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ Beat the Odds

Top Ten Takeaways: 'Hobbit' Finale Surges, Why Jolie's 'Unbroken' Beat the Odds

The three-day post-Christmas weekend came in 10% ahead of last year. The good news is spread out among diverse films and genres, including those not aimed at the one-time go-to domestic audience (males 15-24). The industry is adjusting to a new reality. After a disappointing 2014, the success this weekend is 180 degrees from where the industry was before the holiday when it felt under attack from North Korea. 

Much of the strength of the weekend came from more limited release specialized films (including “The Interview,” which played mostly in smaller indie houses).

The Top Ten

1. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Bros.) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$41,420,000 (-24%) in 3,875 theaters (unchanged); PSA (per screen average): $10,689; Cumulative: $168,522,000
2. Unbroken (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 60; est. budget $65 million
$31,748,000 in 3,131 theaters; PSA: $10,140; Cumulative: $47,341,000
3. Into the Woods (Buena Vista) NEW – Cinemascore: B, Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 70; est. budget $55 million
$31,021,000 in 2,440 theaters; PSA: $12,714; Cumulative: $46,105,000
4. Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (20th Century Fox) Week 2 – Last weekend #2
$ (+21%) in 3,914 theaters (+129); PSA: $5,263; Cumulative: $55,307,000
5. Annie (Sony) Week 2 – Last weekend #3
$ (+5%) in 3,197 theaters (+81); PSA: $5,192; Cumulative: $45,835,000
6. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate) Week 6 – Last weekend #5
$10,000,000 (+27%) in 2,793 theaters (-381); PSA: $3,580; Cumulative: $306,656,000
7. The Gambler (Paramount) NEW – Cinemascore: C+; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 76
$9,300,000 in 2,478 theaters; PSA: $3,753; Cumulative: $14,300,000
8. The Imitation Game (Weinstein) Week 5 – Last weekend #16
$7,930,000 (+824%) in 747 theaters (+713); PSA: $10,616; Cumulative: $14,631,000
9. Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox) Week 3 – Last weekend #4
$6,500,000 (-17%) in 3,002 theaters (-501); PSA: $2,249; Cumulative: $52,517,000
10. Wild (Fox Searchlight) Week 4 – Last weekend #6
$5,415,000 (+32%) in 1,285 theaters (+224); PSA: $4,214; Cumulative: $16,364,000

The Takeaways

The Hobbit comes through

In its second full weekend, “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, with $41 million, grossed $10 million more than the higher-opening “Desolation of Smaug” on either its second or post-Christmas third weekend. That’s a big accomplishment (along with its massive international take so far) that makes it look like “Armies” still has a shot of outdoing at least the second installment, and maybe even the first. Because of its later release date, it still lags $21 million behind the total as of the same Sunday last year, and it will need to continue with a full head of steam to jump ahead. (“Smaug” grossed $26 million after the post-New Years weekend last time.)
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Why the uptick? Like the “Lord of the Rings” series, the finale brings an extra need-to-see factor. And “Armies” is aided by the lack of competition for older teen/young adult male fans (“Wolf of Wall Street” nabbed many of those able to get into an R-rated film last year). But equally important is the belief that this, like “The Return of the King” (though absent the critical/awards acclaim) is the best of the three films. Whatever the factors, combined they look to lead the ultimate “Hobbit” to a three-peat at #1, just like the first two films. But more impressively, if it happens, unlike the first two, that will include both post-holiday weekends because of its later release. The last film to do that was “Avatar.”

Why “Unbroken” outscored last year’s “Wolf of Wall Street”

Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” has gone in just four weeks from early awards favorite to lukewarm initial response from critics and Oscar mavens to now the leader among Christmas Day wide releases.. Its $47 million four-day gross is 50% or more above any realistic expectations before its opening (and $30 million would have been considered good). The gross is $13 million better than the five day total (through the weekend last year) for “Wolf of Wall Street,” which had Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Jolie and her unknown cast.

Why this success? As the film is holding steady compared to other Christmas releases, several factors come into play. A major asset was its famous hero’s well-known story, even before the still-best selling biography gave it much more attention. Its military World War II plot (see “Fury” and “Monuments Men” earlier this year) continues to have appeal with men, even seven decades later. Throw in the huge interest in sophomore director Angelina Jolie (who is not only a major star but also has credibility as a world activist and humanitarian) clearly helped get attention. This tough, nearly all-male film managed a slight majority female audience. And Warner Bros. did Universal a huge favor by having Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” open in only three cities/four theaters, so its competition was limited.

But none of that explains the huge number alone. The extra boost likely came from an element known to Universal’s marketing folks, but people on the coasts might not have seen coming. The studio expended a lot of effort in reaching out to the same faith-based middle-American core that most recently “Exodus” tried to reach, which has also boosted such films as “Heaven Is for Real.” The biography, in far greater emphasis than in the film, makes a central theme of (spoiler alert) Louis Zamperini’s post-war religious commitment and his emphasis on forgiveness. Remind anyone of another big religious success? It looks like “Unbroken” may have more successfully managed to combine a brutality-centered depiction with (although again not foregrounded in the movie) a Christian message better than any attempt since Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

The other smart element? This is a chance to salute one of the mostly unknown industry figures who played a key role in all this. Pioneer Nikki Rocco, Universal’s long time President of Domestic Distribution, is going out on a high that anyone would covet. She is retiring after an astounding 47 years with the company, starting while still in high school at their New York base. Heads of distribution, though usually low-profile figures with the public, are central to the success or failure of films.

Rocco, whose experience and expertise has been essential for Universal through changing leadership, would have been in the middle of two key decisions about “Unbroken”: first, what day to open (along with time of year), and then whether to go limited or wide to start. This film, despite the familiarity of the book, still arguably might have been positioned as a platform release (which, with its muted reviews might have been a problem) or sent out sometime other than Christmas Day. Both decisions clearly are bullseyes, not only in term of maximized grosses but also getting the film back front and center in the awards’ derby after it has been a no-show so far. Brava for a job well done to the end.

With her retirement, the only non-male head of distribution at a major leaves the game. (Last year, Sheila Deloach retired from Fox Searchlight, and Focus Features’ Linda Ditrinco was displaced when the company shut down its New York operation (she is now Eastern Division manager for Twentieth Century Fox). There are a handful of important women head film buyers for mid-level chains, though none of the major national ones. But even more significant is the loss of someone who could speak with authority to studio chiefs who can seem clueless about distributor/exhibitor business dealings (see the Sony debacle over “The Interview,” where until last summer Jeff Blake could stand as a near-equal with the two Sony heads). Her able second in command Nick Carpou now takes over. But a generation of able, older executives is moving on, and like Rocco, will be sorely missed.

“Into the Woods” Also Soars

Every bit as impressive as “Unbroken,” particularly in falling only just over $1 million behind in about 700 fewer theaters, is “Into the Woods.” Sometimes distribution decisions come easy. After “Les Miserables” took in $66 million for its first six days (through the weekend), placing Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed musical in the same place made total sense. And it worked. The weekend was $4 million bigger (the four day total is $44 million, not that far behind) and more importantly it too is holding steady (despite a mediocre B Cinemascore). Credit a smart Disney connection that attracted urbanites, older viewers, a majority female, but also a younger crowd (25% 16 and under, 43% 25 and under). And it never hurts to have Meryl Streep front and center, again surrounded by other big names. This is a real rebound for her after the mediocre performance of the challenging “August Osage County” and looks to be her first $100 million+ domestic hit since “It’s Complicated.”

The story continues

As expected Christmas brought several were aweaker openings (“The Gambler,” “Big Eyes”), as well as strong second week boosts for the more family-oriented “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” and “Annie”). “The Imitation Game” and “Wild” were both breakout specialized films in the Christmas Top Ten. A battle broke out between two holdover animated films (“Big Hero 6” is beating “Penguins of Madagacar”). Seeing an impressive rebound was “Mockingjay Part 1” and “Interstellar” added to its impressive total.

While “Top Five” in under 1,500 theaters did not quite make the Top Ten at $3.8 million, it is already approaching $20 million. The fun thing about this time of year is that the order keeps changing. Check back on Tuesday for a holiday bonus report. Industry insiders know that the Monday after Christmas tells the best story of how the public is responding to films and often setting the tone for the next month and also having a big impact on the Oscar race.

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