Box office: 'Interview,' 'Unbroken' and a busy, bizarre weekend

After all the drama was 'The Interview' a financial success?

It was clear this was going to be a strange box office weekend when, on Friday morning, I stood outside Lincoln Center—site of John Huston curations and Iranian film retrospectives—and ended up in a debate with several retirees I’d just met over whether Seth Rogen had gone too far in “The Interview.” My conversation-mates had just seen the movie, and the idea that a Rogen comedy was being shown at Lincoln Center and then debated by Lincoln Center denizens should have been an indication something strange was floating around Mercury. Or maybe Kim Jong Un had hacked our pop culture.

The weekend, it turned out, would get stranger. A decently reviewed World War II movie became an outsized hit, while a remake of one of the most beloved properties in modern movie history continued its slow fizzle. And of course there was “The Interview,” which was neither an outright hit nor outright failure, though Sony tried—sort of--to make a case for the former.

This proved to be the most popular weekend of the year at the multiplex. Here’s a breakdown of what it was, and wasn’t, filled with.

“Unbroken.” There were a lot of unfavorable precedents and indicators to believe coming into the weekend. Angelina Jolie didn’t have much marketing value behind the camera. World War II movies don’t sell massive amounts of tickets. Bestsellers don’t necessarily translate to a blockbuster, especially when they’re bestsellers of the biographical/memoir sort. The conventional wisdom was out there and eminently reasonable. Most projections had “Unbroken” barely reaching $20 million for the four-day weekend.

And yet when the totals came in, the film had swept up $47 million, putting it on track to surpass the (solid) $84 million of that other World War II picture in the Jolie-Pitt household, “Fury.” “Unbroken” had torture but also consumer-friendly uplift, and though die-hards scratched their heads about the film omitting the interesting third act of Louis Zamperini’s story, that didn’t matter to audiences. 

Here’s the number you need to know — at its current pace, “Unbroken” could well hit $100 million, which would make it the third highest-grossing book-based drama of the year, behind only “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Gone Girl.”

“Into the Woods.” There were concerns that live-action musicals were too niche to do big business over the holidays. And that themes too dark wouldn’t appeal to families over Christmas. Yet  “Into the Woods” outperformed, and then some. The Stephen Sondheim-derived movie took in $46 million over its four-day weekend and is on pace to sail past $100 million. By comparison, Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd” just seven years ago took in $52 million… over its entire run.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” It was already clear that the J.R.R. Tolkien franchise was losing steam, going from an opening weekend number of $85 million with its debut installment in 2012 to $75 million last year to $55 million this year. By that standard, this weekend looks like a decent one for the film—it took in $41 million, the highest second-weekend total of all the “Hobbit” films, losing only 24% compared with the 50%-plus drops of past installments (the weekend number gets an additional $13 million if you add Christmas Day).

Still, the stronger second weekend isn’t big enough to offset the drop—the combined total of the first two weekends for “Armies” is still a good chunk smaller than the combined first two weekends of each of the previous films. And there’s a big caveat to all this, since this film’s second weekend comes after Christmas, when consumers are in much more of a filmgoing state of mind (the previous two installments had their second weekend before Christmas, when consumers are in much more of a preparatory state of mind).

The overall interest in the Peter Jackson franchise has undoubtedly flagged (compare all this with “Lord of the Rings,” whose totals steadily built film to film). This installment’s domestic total will fall well short of the $303 million of the first ”Hobbit” and will struggle to reach the $258 million of the second film.

In the end, Warner Bros. will be just fine with the global total, which should still reach $900 million. We might be ready for a Peter Jackson movie in one part, though.

“Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.” Comedy franchises can fall hard, but they don’t often fall this hard. The first Ben Stiller romp through history brought in $250 million in the U.S. The second came in at $177 million. This one has taken in--gulp--$55 million through two weekends, including Christmas. Some foreign business will ease the sting. Slightly.

“Annie.” When it comes to Sony, there’s been so much focus on “The Interview” that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it has a much bigger bet quietly going away. “Annie” hobbled out of the gate with a paltry $15 million on its first weekend, then saw a slight uptick this weekend to $17 million (with an extra $5 million on Christmas Day). That’s still not very good. This is a film with the highest of expectations — a huge brand name and big talent both in front of and behind the camera (including Will Smith as producer). And it looks like the film will barely reach $75 million in the U.S. The original? It took in $140 million in today’s dollars — in a lot fewer theaters.

“The Interview.” So after all that drama, we’re left with a simple question: Was it a success? There were two narratives -- equally triumphant, but very much competing -- coming out of Sony.

The first is that the $44 million-budgeted Rogen comedy was an unmitigated hit, since it garnered 2 million downloads for a movie that was not conceived nor marketed for digital release. In the studio's words: “SONY PICTURES ANNOUNCES STRONG ONLINE RESPONSE TO THE INTERVIEW” and “Film Brings In Over $15 Million in First Four Days of Distribution,” a number that includes the $6-a-pop online rental and the roughly $3 million in limited theatrical box office.

The other is that we’re, well, not sure if it’s a success but all of this should be graded on a curve because, you know, hacking. Sony distribution's Rory Bruer saidd that these were "incredibly challenging circumstances" as he laid down the numbers.

So where does it actually come out? Is $2.8 million in theatrical receipts for a limited release good? Sure, if it’s a foreign-language auteur piece. A comedian with millions of fans? Not as straightforward. Is 2 million downloads good? Well, it may or may not be, since we have no way of knowing a) what Sony's digital splits were with its partners and b) what kind of audience shows on Netflix and other services typically get, because they don’t even release cursory numbers like this.

The best that can be said is that, considering that it looked like the movie wouldn’t come out at all, about a half million people seeing it in theaters and a couple million paying to watch it online feels solid enough. Then again, with so much free publicity, and so many who saw this movie as a free-speech cause, should it have picked up more people along the way?

“The Interview” will be subject to a lot of scrutiny in the coming weeks and even years. Did the filmmakers make the most of their shots at a totalitarian regime? Did a studio correctly gauge how said regime would react, and did it respond accordingly once it realized what the reaction was? But at bottom is also a box-office mystery. And like so many things about this release, the resolution is far from clear.

@ZeitchikLAT

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