The freezing temperatures and hazardous conditions that plagued the Midwest, the South and Texas this weekend might have come from a spell cast by Elsa, the sorceress snow queen in Frozen. The hardy souls who ventured into movie theaters made Disney’s animated feature the top attraction at the North American box office with a take of $31.6 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. Frozen dethroned Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire fell to second place, with $27 million, after two weeks on top.
The one new wide opening, Out of the Furnace, a Frost Belt drama starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, got an icy reception: just $5.3 million in 2,101 theaters. In a very limited release of just four theaters, the new “hit” was Joel and Ethan Coen’s folk-music dramedy Inside Llewyn Davis, set in the chill midwinter of 1961 New York City. Everybody wore mittens to the movies.
[MONDAY UPDATE: According to the "actual" figures issued this afternoon, Frozen held its $31.6 million, while The Hunger Games: Catching Fire finished $800,000, or 3%, below its Sunday estimate. Inside Llewyn Davis earned $405,411, a bit higher than yesterday's number but not enough to topple Blue Jasmine for the year's highest per-screen average.]
The weekend after the big Thanksgiving holiday usually plunges steeply — 40-50% — as consumers go shopping instead of to the multiplex. This weekend’s drop was worse (55%), which may be attributed in part to the severe weather. But the total box-office revenue, $94.4 million, was the highest since 2009. And for the first time ever, two movies earned more, way more, than $20 million. Frozen has grossed nearly $200 million worldwide, though it has not yet opened in most of the rest of the world. With the success of 2010′s Tangled, it certifies the staying power of the Disney-princess subgenre.
(FIND: Frozen on TIME’s “Top 10 Best Movies” list)
And Catching Fire, following The Twilight Saga, proves the vitality of gynocentric movie series based on YA novels. The second movie made from Suzanne Collins’ Katiniss books has earned $673.4 million in three weeks, nearly equalling the $691.2-million global bounty for The Hunger Games in its entire theatrical run. The difference is the overseas earnings. At 41% for the first film, they are up to 50% for Catching Fire. International audiences are typically late to the game for original franchises. They catch up with the sequels.
(READ: Lev Grossman’s interview with Suzanne Collins and Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence)
Hollywood had sagely, or rather serendipitously, prepared for the weather emergency and the audience evacuation by releasing no new big films. For all its artistic ambitions, Out of the Furnace was a dump job — a star-cast sacrificial lamb on the order of the Brad Pitt-led Killing Them Softly, which opened the same weekend last year to a pianissimo $6.8 million. The Bale-ful movie garnered even less: just $5.3 million. With a $27-million budget and a woeful C-plus rating from the CinemaScore poll of early attendees, Scott Cooper’s slo-mo revenge drama may soon be consigned to the incinerator of worthy failures.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Out of the Furnace)
Does a happier fate await Inside Llewyn Davis? Todd Cunningham of The Wrap suggests so, proclaiming that the $401,000 the film grossed in four houses represents the Coen brothers’s “best box-office debut ever … more than doubling the $43,797 rung up by Oscar Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men when it took in $1.2 million from 28 theaters in 2007.” We’re talking per-screen average (PSA), the total take divided by the number of venues. But of course a highly publicized movie that opens in two theaters each in New York and Los Angeels is likely to get a lot of people crowding into fewer theaters.
(READ: Inside Llewyn Davis — Folk You)
The PSA for very limited releases of movies with an indie attitude is no reliable predictor of their ultimate popular reception. This year’s top PSA ($102,001) was for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which has earned a decent $32.8 million since its July premiere. Disney often opens its animated features, like Frozen, for a week’s showcase in one or two theaters before their wide release. Both Woody and Walt do fine with their boutique strategy. But among the non-Disney-animation films that have opened in fewer than 10 venues, the all-time highest PSAs were recorded by Kevin Smith’s Red State ($204,230), which went on to earn a paltry total of $1.1 million, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master ($147,262), which stalled out at $16.4 million. The people who wanted to see those films saw them early, and the fever never spread to the general moviegoer.
It’s just barely conceivable that Llewyn Davis, which stars the underknown Oscar Isaac as a grouchy folk singer, may go on to reach the box-office status achieved by No Country ($74.3 million) and True Grit ($171.2 million). But Llewyn isn’t a comedy-ish melodrama made to please the masses. The movie more closely resembles another of the brothers’ ornery, no-star vehicles, A Serious Man, which fell short of $10 million in its final gross. We’d guess that the final take will be nearer to Serious than to Country — that Llewyn Davis is the kind of movie that charms most of the critics but leaves the paying customer as cold as a December weekend in St. Paul.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Frozen, $31.6 million; $134.3 million, third week
2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, $27 million; $336.7 million, third week
3. Out of the Furnace, $5.3 million, first weekend
4. Thor: The Dark World, $4.7 million; $193.7 million, fifth week
5. Delivery Man, $3.8 million; $24.8 million, third week
6. Homefront, $3.4 million; $15.3 million, second week
7. The Book Thief, $2.7 million; $12.1 million, fifth week
8. The Best Man Holiday, $2.673 million; $67.2 million, fourth week
9. Philomena, $2.3 million; $8.3 million, third week
10. Dallas Buyers Club, $1.5 million; $12.4 million, sixth week