Hollywood Solves Its Fiscal Cliff Crisis: Hobbit, Django and Les Mis All Win Big

Tolkiening, Tarantining and musical keening drew audiences into movie theaters this holiday weekend

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While Washington speeds like Wile E. Coyote toward a fiscal cliff, Hollywood reaped a windfall this holiday weekend. Two year-end behemoths — the pop opera Les Misérables and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained — and the family comedy Parental Guidance helped push business up some 20% from the same time last year (which also included New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, a time of traditionally robust ticket sales). With one day to go, the final tally for 2012 should show an increase of about 6% at the North American box office over 2011, in both revenue and attendance. To highlight the year-end festivities with a champagne-cork pop, Skyfall this weekend became the 14th movie in history, and the first James Bond film, to reach $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Skyfall)

For the third weekend, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey held the top slot with $32.9 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. This first in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of prequels to The Lord of the Rings has earned $222.7 million in its first 17 days. That’s well off the pace of the LOTR finale, The Return of the King, which garnered the same amount in 12 days back in 2003. But add the $464 million The Hobbit has taken in abroad, and this throat-clearing chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s first Middle Earth adventure looks to end up a money maker of Elvish, not Dwarvish, stature.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Les Miz, the full-throatal movie version of the 1985 West End and global musical sensation, opened to a vigorous $18.1 million on Christmas day. Directed by Tom Hooper (an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech) and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter and Amanda Seyfried, the film has not quite maintained its initial momentum, earning a projected $28 million this weekend and finishing behind The Hobbit and Django Unchained. On the positive side for the long haul: the movie pulled a glowing “A” grade from the CinemaScore survey of early attendees. The big negative: fully two-thirds of the customers were women. The guys are boycotting the barricades.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Les Misérables)

That gender skew may not be fatal. The 2008 Mamma Mia!, another movie of an international hit musical (with another featured role for Seyfried), attracted a predominantly female audience; and its first six-day total of $40.6 million was far below the new film’s. Yet it went on to gross $608.8 million worldwide — $144.1 million at North American theaters and a money-money-money $465.7 million abroad — giving Mamma Mia! the fourth all-time-highest ratio of foreign-to-domestic revenue (76.4%) for an Anglo-American hit (after Ice Age 4, the disaster film 2012 anc Pirates of the Caribbean 4). In its first offshore runs, Les Miz has already earned $48.7 million, led by a record-breaking $20-million opening in South Korea. Even if macho males see red when they think of being dragged to an all-singing movie, the $61-million production is sure to wind up in the black.

(SEE: Top 10 Les Mizzes Better Than the New Les Miz)

And speaking of red: there’s blood everywhere in Tarantino’s giddy, gaudy mashup of 1960s spaghetti Westerns and the 1970s blaxploitation genre. Costing a lavish $100 million to produce, this Weinstein Company epic was a chancy release for Christmastime; yet the gamble has so far paid off in a $30.7-million weekend (second place) and $64 million in its first six days. The early reaction is favorable — an A-minus CinemaScore — and the audience comprises nearly as many women (46%) as men, indicating that the movie is leaping over the usual Tarantino demographics toward definite-hit status. Django is well on its way to becoming only the second Western of this century (after True Grit) to top $125 million at the domestic box office.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Django Unchained)

Christmas being the season for family comedies, Hollywood served up three this year — all about culturally Jewish families — with mixed-to-poor results. Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 parlayed awkward laughs about midlife anxieties into an OK $37.1 million in 10 days. The mother-daughter crosscountry pairing of Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen in The Guilt Trip has attracted few hitchhikers: a lonely $21.2 million in 12 days. Only Parental Guidance, with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as babysitting grandparents, got a holiday present that surprised on the upside: $29.6 million in the six days of Christmas.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Parental Guidance)
Parental Guidance marks Crystal’s first appearance on the big screen in a decade (since Analyze That) and could bring Midler her first starring-role hit movie since The First Wives Club in 1996. Rated an appropriate PG (for Parental Guidance) and costing a thrifty $25 million to produce, the picture found its audience spread across the demographic spectrum — 53% families, 52% women, 55% over age 25 — and received a cheerful A-minus CinemaScore. That grade was in stark contrast to the abysmal 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie critics’ aggregate site. Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for the film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, had a Grinchy explanation for the chasm between reviewers and the public. “Critics are so impressed with themselves and want to show how smart and clever they are,” Aronson told the Los Angeles Times, “and when there’s something sweet that’s right down the middle, they tend to turn their noses up at it.” Translation: Only real people are human enough to love a medicore movie.

(READ: Corliss’s 1987 Bette Midler cover story by subscribing to TIME)

With Django and Les Mis appealing to a broad spectrum of adult audiences, and everyone’s favorite civics lesson, Lincoln, still solidly in the top 10 after eight weeks, art-house attendance was mostly tepid. The two exceptions were critics’-groups best-film winners, both in their 12th day of release: the bin Laden caper docudrama Zero Dark Thirty, which earned $315,000 this weekend and $1.4 million to date in just five theaters; and the French-language death drama Amour, playing in three theaters and adding $60,000 this weekend, for a total of $217,600. The one new specialty entry slathered in celebrity musk — Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, starring and cowritten by Matt Damon and John Krasinski — opened in 25 theaters to $190,000, for a paltry per-screen average of $7,600. Score one for the fiscal cliff.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

  1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $32.9 million; $222.7 million, third week
  2. Django Unchained, $30.7 million, first weekend; $64 million, first six days
  3. Les Misérables, $28 million, first weekend; $67.5 million, first six days
  4. Parental Guidance, $14.8 million, first weekend; $29.6 million, first six days
  5. Jack Reacher, $14 million; $44.7 million, second week
  6. This Is 40, $13.2 million; $37.1 million, second week
  7. Lincoln, $7.5 million; $132 million, eighth week
  8. The Guilt Trip, $6.7 million; $21.1 million, second week
  9. Monsters, Inc., $6.4 million; $18.5, second week of rerelease
  10. Rise of the Guardians, $4.9 million; $90.2 million, sixth week