It was the most wonderful time of the year for the box office.
Though the box office total is still down about 5% from last year, three new films, the final “Hobbit” installment and limited-release awards contenders helped give the industry a much needed end-of-the-year boost. Compared to the same weekend last year, the box office was up 6.6%.
Peter Jackson’s "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" finished on top for its second weekend, adding $54.5 million to its domestic haul. The film, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, has made almost $170 million to date in the U.S. and Canada.
Angelina Jolie-directed "Unbroken" and Disney’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical "Into the Woods” exceeded tracking expectations and ended up pulling in $47.3 million and $46.1 million, respectively, in four days.
Meanwhile, moviegoers flocked to independent theaters to see the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy "The Interview.” The Sony film, which was released in 331 theaters and on video-on-demand platforms, collected $2.8 million in theaters and more than $15 million online. Sony said that through Saturday, the film has been rented or purchased online more than 2 million times.
Going into the weekend, tracking suggested Jolie's "Unbroken” would premiere to $20 million. Instead, the Universal-distributed film outpaced other newcomers to finish second.
The drama, which cost about $65 million to make, is based on Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 nonfiction bestseller about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned war hero.
Though it has received mixed reviews from critics, audiences gave it an A- grade with audience polling firm CinemaScore. It has a 51% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“This is a film that so deserves to be recognized,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s domestic head of distribution. Rocco, who is retiring from her position in 2015, said it was great to “end on a high note with a film that really inspired me.”
The biopic drew mostly older audiences. About 71% of moviegoers were over the age of 25, and 52% were female.
In third, “Into the Woods” catered to families and about 54% of audience members were female.
The film has generally good reviews, with a solid 70% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a B grade on audience polling firm CinemaScore. It also scored three nominations for Golden Globes.
Directed by Rob Marshall, the Disney musical drama is a modern twist on several fairy tales and stars Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp.
“The filmmaking group turned the idea of happily ever after on its head,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s head of distribution. “In four days we were able to expose this movie to four times as many people on the big screen that ever saw it inside a stage show.”
Paramount Pictures' "The Gambler” ended up in seventh with $14.3 million, slightly higher than the $10-million to $12-million projection.
The film, which cost about $25 million to make, follows English professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), who moonlights as a gambler. John Goodman, Brie Larson and Jessica Lange also star in the film, which is a remake of the 1974 original starring James Caan.
The Wahlberg drama was viewed by younger, male audiences. About 51% of moviegoers were male.
“There are a lot of family films and broad films right now -- but this had a big appeal for male audiences,” said Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution. “We’re happy with how it played.”
Audiences gave it at C+ rating on CinemaScore and 47% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Though "The Interview" was originally intended as a wide-release film, the studio on Dec. 17 axed those plans after hackers threatened violence against movie theaters and most exhibitors declined to screen the film.
But threats didn’t shake up moviegoers, who showed up at theaters across the U.S. to support free speech and see the hyped film.
"I'm so grateful that the movie found its way into theaters, and I'm thrilled that people actually went out and saw it,” Rogen said in a statement. “The fact that people actually left their houses when they had the option of staying home is amazing."
Rory Bruer, Sony’s domestic head of distribution, added: “While this is a completely unprecedented circumstance without proper comparisons, we are very pleased with how it is doing both theatrically where we are seeing numerous sell-outs across the country, and online where it remains at the top of many charts."
Also in limited release, Paramount debuted "Selma" on 19 screens in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Atlanta. The film has made $590,000 so far and the studio estimates it will ring up $912,000 after Sunday.
“It’s not a typical biopic; there is this look at this man that is so unusual because it kind of unearths the strategy he had, the doubt he had, the concerns he had for people’s well-being,” Colligan said of the film’s success. “It’s truly inspiring in a relatable way.”
It earned a 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and notched four Golden Globes nominations.
Weinstein Co. opened Tim Burton's "Big Eyes” in about 1,300 theaters. The film, which is based on the 1960s story of artist Margaret Keane and husband Walter, stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as the couple. It made $4.4 million.
Warner Bros. released Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," starring Bradley Cooper, on four screens in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas. It made a whopping $850,000 or a per location average of $212,500.
Analysts predict 2014 will end up pulling in $10.4 billion to $10.5 billion at the box office.
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