Correction appended: Dec. 30, 2013, 2:10 a.m. E.T.
In a Christmas week stocked with enticing new presents, which ones would moviegoers open first? None of them — they’d rather play with their favorite old toys.
This year, two family-film holdovers held off the edgy new comedies. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug narrowly defeated the Disney double-princess musical Frozen, $29.8 million to $28.8 million for the weekend and $49.3 million to $44.3 million for the five days of Christmas at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates.
Business was also bustling for three social satires set in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues secured third place for Ron Burgundy and his TV team. The all-star Abscam dramedy American Hustle finished fourth for the weekend, just ahead of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s hyper-hyper portrait of a coke-stoked broker played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Over the five-day holiday, these three movies picked more than $100 million from the pockets of paying customers. It now seems certain that 2013 will break last year’s domestic box-office record of $10.837 billion.
[UPDATE: According to final figures, most of the highest-grossing films dropped a percentage point or two from their Sunday estimates. Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas sagged 7%, to $6.9 million, and fell out of the top 10, replaced by Walking With Dinosaurs, which earned $7.3 million.]
Having ladled out the yuletide largesse, Santa was obliged to leave coal in a few stockings. The Keanu Reeves samurai epic 47 Ronin came up about 46 ronin short, practically falling on its sword by earning just $20.6 million in five days. Grudge Match put Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) back in the boxing ring, but this was no title fight: the movie took in just $7.3 million for the weekend and $13.4 million for five days. And Justin Bieber knocked himself out — his concert doc Believe cadged a most skeptical $2 million over the weekend and $4.3 million for the five-day set.
Christmas hadn’t fallen on a Wednesday since 2002, when the winner was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, another middle film in a Tolkien trilogy. Smaug still isn’t matching the domestic grosses of its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey — and by the way, years from now, will anyone remember the full titles of these movies? — but it’s made more than $600 million worldwide and is questing for more. An Unexpected Journey ended at $1.017 billion, with 70% of its revenue earned abroad. The sequel is following that model: 68% of its current gross has come from the foreign market. It has a shot at making off with enough of Smaug the dragon’s gold to crash the billion-dollar barrier.
Frozen is on a remarkable run. Earning 47% more this weekend than last, the animated feature is picking up momentum in its fifth week of wide release. No November release has managed a Christmas-weekend finish as high as second place since Toy Story in 1995 (in the past quarter century, the only November picture to finish first on Christmas was the 1990 Home Alone, which held the top spot for an astounding 12 weeks). So far, Frozen has amassed $491.9 million worldwide; it should soon pass Aladdin ($504.1 million) and eventually Tangled ($591.8 million) to become the second highest-grossing non-Pixar Disney animated feature, trailing only The Lion King ($987.5 million). Stats keeper’s word of caution: in real, uninflated dollars, Frozen is unlikely to catch Aladdin ($975 million) and will never challenge The Lion King ($1.67 billion).
The Wolf of Wall Street — WoWS for short — provided the week’s big news and noise. Costing at least $100 million, and winning an R rating only after Scorsese trimmed a sex scene, this biopic of convicted scam artist Jordan Belfort opened in second place, behind Smaug, on Christmas Day, only to fall to fifth place ($18.5 million) for a less-than-WoW weekend. The abysmal C rating from moviegoers polled by the CinemaScore survey indicates that three hours of sex, drugs and dwarf-tossing is not to everyone’s taste. But DiCaprio’s marquee value should not be dismissed. A quartet of his recent films — Shutter Island, Inception, Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby — earned $600 million in North America and a succulent $1.8 billion worldwide. If anyone can turn a predator’s coke binge into a hit movie, Leo’s the man.
Yet, for the weekend, more folks preferred another period scam comedy. American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner as five desperate characters with big dreams and extravagant hair styles, did better its second week than its first, earning $19.55 million for the weekend and a $60 million cume after 10 days of wide release. Anchorman 2, also set in the dear, dead disco days, topped Hustle, with a $20.1 million weekend and a 10-day total of $83.6 million. The movie has already nearly equaled the $85.3 million that the original Anchorman earned back in 2003 — again, when ticket prices were much cheaper (real-dollar domestic revenue for the first film: $110.6 million, also in the sequel’s potential range).
In sixth and seventh places were two gentler movies offering a largely fictional inside view of major media corporations: the Walt Disney Co. in Saving Mr. Banks and Time Inc. in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In Banks, Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, trying to pry the film rights to the Mary Poppins books from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). The movie jumped a califragilisticexpialidocious, possibly a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious 50% from last week, at the same 2,110 theaters. With $37.8 million in the Banks, it looks poised for a long, healthy run, with Oscar nominations also in its sights.
Mitty was always an uphill climb. In development for at least a dozen years, running through many potential directors and stars, and finally costing about $90 million, the project relied on the name recognition of James Thurber (author of the 1939 New Yorker story about a henpecked daydreamer) and Danny Kaye (star of the 1947 musical-comedy movie version); the people who would want to see what’s new with their old friend Mitty must be deep into their dotage. Ben Stiller finally signed on as director and star, playing Walter as a nebbishy staffer at Life magazine, with Kristen Wiig as his colleague and love interest. Mitty opened to a modest $13 million for the weekend, $25.6 million over its first five days. Its encouraging B-plus CinemaScore may help the film gain traction next weekend.
Then again, Grudge Match and 47 Ronin also notched B-plus CinemaScores among those who went. But virtually nobody went. The Stallone–De Niro bout, budgeted at $40 million, will go quickly into the DVD bin at Goodwill and be forgotten. But 47 Ronin — based on the revolt of a humiliated Japanese lord’s dedicated retainers, which inspired many fine Japanese films (and a Jorge Luis Borges story) — looks to be a very pricey flop. At a cost of at least $175 million, it is the most expensive movie ever entrusted to a first-time director: video maven Carl Rinsch. And it has already underperformed in Japan. Reeves, in his first wide-release movie since The Day the Earth Stood Still five years ago, will have to find a more suitable comeback vehicle — perhaps a fourth Matrix, or Bill & Ted’s Middle-Aged Journey?
In limited release, the star-packed adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play August: Osage County opened Friday and earned $179,500 in five theaters, for an O.K. $35,900 per-screen average. Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as a Navy SEAL battling the Taliban, pulled a near-heroic $92,500 at two venues for the weekend and $155,400 in five days. On three screens, The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as a smitten Charles Dickens, registered $37,100 for the weekend and $58,300 over the full holiday. All three films must wait for early 2014, when they open wider, to get their Christmas presents.
Here are the 10 top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo. We list the estimated totals for both the weekend (Friday-Sunday) and the five days of Christmas (Wednesday-Sunday).
1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, $29.8 million, three days; $49.3 million, five days; $190.3 million, third week
2. Frozen, $28.8 million, three days; $44.3 million, five days; $248.4 million, sixth week
3. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, $20.1 million, three days; $35.7 million, five days; $83.7 million, second week
4. American Hustle, $19.5 million, three days; $33.3 million, five days; $60 million, third week
5. The Wolf of Wall Street, $18.5 million, three days; $34.3 million, first five days
6. Saving Mr. Banks, $14 million, three days; $23.6 million, five days; $37.8 million, third week
7. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, $13 million, three days; $25.6 million, first five days
8. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, $10.2 million, three days; $15.7 million, five days; $391.1 million, sixth week
9. 47 Ronin, $9.9 million, three days; $20.6 million, first five days
10. Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, $7.4 million, three days; $16.6 million, five days; $43.7 million, third week
An earlier version of this article gave the wrong surname for an actress in the film American Hustle. She is Amy Adams, not Amy Harris.