Pop Go the Oscar Contenders! Flop Go the New Movies

'Identity Thief' smashes The Rock, as moviegoers prepare for the 85th Academy Awards

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Bob Mahoney / Universal Pictures

“Seriously,” asked Deadline Hollywood’s Queen of Mean Nikki Finke, “Why do studios open movies on Oscar weekend?”

Finke might have a point. Identity Thief, the weekend’s top film at the North American box office, according to preliminary studio estimates, earned just $14.1 million — the lowest winning total since Dec. 7-9. Last weekend’s No. 1 entry, A Good Day to Die Hard, with Bruce Willis, fell a mortifying 60%, to $10 million, from its OK opening, to continue the run of underperforming R-rated blood ballets by once-reliable action stars (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand, Sylvester Stallone‘s Bullet to the Head, Mark Wahlberg’s Broken City, Jason Statham’s Parker). If it weren’t for decent business the Willis film has done overseas — $132.5 million, for 72% of the film’s worldwide take — his franchise would be in jeopardy of a hard day’s dying.

(READ: Corliss’s review of A Good Day to Die Hard)

The figures were just as anemic for the weekend’s new wide releases. Snitch, the PG-rated daddy-druggie redemption drama starring Dwayne Johnson, registered a mild $13 million, for the second worst debut of the erstwhile Rock’s career; only his 2010 Faster started slower. Dark Skies, PG-13 the sci-fi-horror effort about suburban parents fighting off an alien abduction, earned less than $9 million. The two new films received CinemaScore grades of B and C+, respectively, from first-day visitors. Overall, the weekend was down more than 20% from the same time last year, and continues a month-long slide of receipts from the golden days of early 2012.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Snitch)

For the record, here is the coroner’s report, giving Box Office Mojo‘s Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters:

1. Identity Thief, $14.1 million; $93.7 million, third week
2. Snitch, $13 million, first weekend
3. Escape from Planet Earth, $11 million; $35.1 million, third week
4. Safe Haven, $10.6 million; $48.1 million, second week
5. A Good Day to Die Hard, $10 million; $51.8 million, second week
6. Dark Skies, $8.85 million, first weekend
7. Silver Linings Playbook, $6.1 million; $107.5 million, 15th week
8. Warm Bodies, $4.75 million; $58.3 million, fourth week
9. Side Effects, $3.5 million; $25.3 million, third week
10. Beautiful Creatures, $3.4 million; $16.4 million, second week

[UPDATE: The actual numbers released Monday weren’t far off from the Sunday predictions — and, honestly, who cares? — though The Weinstein Company typically overestimated the totals for its films: Escape from Planet Earth by $300,000, Dark Skies by $650,000 and Silver Linings Playbook by $350,000. Warm Bodies and Side Effects, separated by $250,000 in the final stats, switched ninth and 10th places.]

Yet Finke’s larger notion — that filmgoers are too preoccupied by the imminence of Oscar Night to go to movie theaters — flies in the face of logic. This is exactly the time when audiences have a last chance to catch the contenders that will be duking it out in a televised, three-hour-plus ode to Hollywood love and lore. This weekend, Oscar nominees for Best Picture occupied seven of the top 20 box-office slots, though all these films had been in release for at least two months.

(SEE: TIME.com’s full Oscar coverage)

And when the studios counter-program by releasing a movie with no Academy luster but plenty of marketable want-see, people will go. Last year at this time, the Navy SEALs action-fantasy Act of Valor earned $24.5 million. In 2009, Tyler Perry‘s Madea Goes to Jail took in $41 million. And on Oscar weekend 2010, Tim Burton’s cracked-teapot Alice in Wonderland racked up $116.1 million for the all-time strongest winter opening. Seriously. The Disney Alice did eventually score two Academy wins (for Art Direction and Costumes), but it wasn’t Oscar pedigree that lured the crowds; it was the prospect of a movie they couldn’t resist.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland)

On Sunday night of that Alice weekend three years ago, Avatar, the all-time top-grossing movie ($2.8 billion at the worldwide box office), lost the Oscars‘ top prize to The Hurt Locker, the least-seen Best Picture winner in Oscar history ($49.2 million worldwide). Such an upset — the inversion of audience popularity to Academy esteem — is unlikely to occur tonight. Of the nine nominees for Best Picture, all but the art-house favorites Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild are palpable hits. Six of the finalists have earned more than $100 million at the North American wickets, and a seventh (Zero Dark Thirty) is closing in on $80 million. Five films have amassed more than $200 million worldwide. And one is a global smash. Can you guess which one? Hint: it’s got a boy on a raft with a tiger.

Here are the current box-office results of the nine nominees, according to Box Office Mojo, listing domestic earnings and worldwide revenue, with each film’s percentage of foreign gross in parentheses:

1. Life of Pi, $113.5 million, $578.6 million (80%)
2. Les Misérables, $146.7 million, $380 million (61%)
3. Django Unchained, $158.8 million, $367.4 million (57%)
4. Lincoln, $178.6 million, $237.4 million (25%)
5. Argo, $129.8 million, $206.9 million (37%)
6. Silver Linings Playbook, $103 million, $155.1 million (34%)
7. Zero Dark Thirty, $91.6 million, $104.6 million (12%)
8. Amour, $5.3 million, $18.3 million (71%)
9. Beasts of the Southern Wild, $12.4 million, $18.3 million (32%)

Compare these films and their robust numbers to the slate of nine Best Picture finalists last year, when the only nominee to pass the $100-million domestic mark was The Help, which was also the only film to inch past $200 million worldwide. The Artist, the eventual winner, spent 36 weeks in North American theaters and never appeared among the top 10 entries in the weekend box-office tally.

(READ: Last year’s wrapup of The Artist’s Oscar triumph)

Many of those who did see The Artist, which ended up earning $44.7 million Stateside and about twice as much abroad, thought of their theater-going trip as homework for Oscar night. The same for such other 2012 Best Pictures finalists as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ($31.8 million domestic) and The Tree of Life ($13.3 million). Tonight’s top nominees this time are every bit as award-worthy; it’s just that most of them happened to click with the mass audience. That means that viewers of the Oscar ceremony won’t have to consult Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database to study up on what film just won. They can say, “I saw that one. And I liked it.”