Disney's "Big Hero 6" soared past Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" at the box office this weekend, as both big-budget films had strong launches.
According to studio estimates, the animated action comedy grossed $56.2 million in the U.S. and Canada, edging out Nolan's space drama. "Interstellar" pulled in $52.2 million, which covers the film's early limited release on Tuesday evening and wide release on Friday.
If the early estimates hold up, for only the fourth time in history two films grossed more than $50 million apiece in their shared opening weekend, as had been projected.
In June 2013, "Monsters University" opened to $82.4 million and "World War Z" opened to $66.4 million in the same weekend. "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" opened to $60.3 million the same weekend in 2012 that "Prometheus" opened to about $51 million. And in 2008, "Wanted" opened to $51 million the same weekend that "Wall-E" opened to $63 million.
Despite the "Interstellar" and "Big Hero 6" numbers, the box office is still down 7% from the same weekend last year and down 3.8% year-to-date, according to research firm Rentrak. However, studios and analysts said the upcoming holiday season could help ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada come close to matching last year's annual record of $10.9 billion.
Disney's "Big Hero 6," which cost about $165 million to make, is a loose adaptation of a little-known Marvel comic book. The film attracted largely younger crowds and families: An estimated 58% of moviegoers were 25 and younger, and 70% were families. The audience was evenly split male-female.
"It's just ahead of what we said we thought we'd do coming into the weekend. It sets us up in a really great way for a run ahead," said Dave Hollis, Disney's head of distribution. "It's encouraging to have been ahead of a movie like 'Interstellar,' which is obviously made by one of the great filmmakers of my lifetime."
"Big Hero 6" has been well received: It earned an A grade from audience polling firm CinemaScore and 91% "fresh" rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Directed by Disney veterans Don Hall ("Winnie the Pooh") and Chris Williams ("Bolt"), the CG-animated film follows a rebellious robotics prodigy named Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) and a guileless healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit).
The film comes on the heels of Disney's 2013 hit "Frozen," the winter musical that went on to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. It has generated more than $1.2 billion in ticket sales worldwide.
"If nothing else, the success for the weekend is a testament to this creative renaissance that is well underway at Disney animation studios," Hollis said. "The successes they've had, from 'Tangled' to last year's 'Frozen,' shows they are really firing on all cylinders."
Meanwhile, Nolan's almost-three-hour film attracted largely older crowds. An estimated 75% of moviegoers were 25 and older. The audience was 52% male.
The film follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer and pilot who has been called upon to find a hospitable new planet because Earth is turning into a giant dust bowl. Co-financed by Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros., the science drama cost about $165 million to make.
"This is definitely the broadest appeal movie that's going to be in the marketplace this November," said Rob Moore, Paramount's vice chairman. "You have a lot of audiences that really connect with the film."
Paramount began releasing "Interstellar" in select theater early last week. Advance showings of the space drama played on 240 film-only screens — including 70mm Imax, 70mm and 35mm — in 77 markets across the U.S. and Canada before it expanded to more theaters.
Imax generated its largest percentage of box office ever for a first-run release; the film grossed $13.4 million on 368 Imax screens, a per-screen average of more than $36,000. The film was also Imax's best opening for a November release. "Skyfall" held the previous record with $12.6 million.
Paramount hoped that the midweek release would help generate buzz for the film. It used a similar tactic in 2011 with the launch of "Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol" five days before the film opened in wide release. The action film, starring Tom Cruise, went on to gross about $209.4 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Heavy marketing also played a large part in the release of "Interstellar." The studios partnered with Google to create an immersive website called "The Interstellar Space Hub."
They also partnered with Fandango and Vice Media's Motherboard channel to create a sweepstakes that would send one ticket buyer to the edge of space.
Such marketing "helps the film stand out and helps consumers realize, 'Oh this is something that is an event and I should be part of it,'" Moore said.
The film earned a B+ grade from CinemaScore and a 73% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Many liken Nolan's latest film to Alfonso Cuarón's 3-D space drama "Gravity," which opened with a robust $55.6 million in October 2013 — the biggest October debut to date.
David Fincher's "Gone Girl" jumped from fourth to third in its sixth weekend at the box office. The Twentieth Century Fox film, which pulled in $6.1 million, has a domestic total of $145.4 million to date.
After two weekends on top, Universal Pictures' "Ouija" fell to No. 4. The PG-13 film added $6 million this weekend, making its cumulative domestic gross about $43.5 million.
The Weinstein Co.'s "St. Vincent," starring Bill Murray, rounded out the top five in its fifth weekend. It pulled in $5.7 million, raising its domestic total to $27.4 million.
In limited release, Focus Features' "The Theory of Everything" also did well. It grossed $207,000 in five locations, a per-location average of $41,400.