As any sports stats cruncher can tell you, this evening’s Super Bowl XVIII is the 12th to be played in the first week of February but the first to take place on Feb. 2: Groundhog Day. And like Punxsutawney Phil, who this morning saw his shadow and crept back into his hole, most Americans stayed away from movie theaters this weekend. You may blame either Super Bowl fever — the devotee’s need to prepare for the sacred event by cooking a 48-meat stew, as Stephen Colbert said he would be dishing out — or the dearth of attractive new product at multiplexes. Bet on the dearth, and take the under.
In a defensive scrimmage short on excitement, the reigning champ Ride Along defeated Disney’s animated feature Frozen, now in its 11th week, to win the weekend at North American theaters. Scoring its third win in a row, the cop comedy with Ice Cube and star-of-the-moment Kevin Hart took in a modest $12.3 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. The princess musical added $9.3 million to its colossal $360 million haul, after introducing a sing-along version in many theaters. Third place went to the new bromance That Awkward Moment, headlined by Zac Efron; it earned $9 million, a bit below limited expectations.
[UPDATE: According to final figures, issued Monday, all but one of the top 10 movies earned less than their Sunday predictions. Ride Along ended up with $12 million (down 2%), Frozen with $8.9 million (down 4%), That Awkward Moment with $8.7 million (down 3%) and The Nut Job with $7.3 million (down 4%). The only film to exceed its early estimate was I, Frankenstein, which actually earned $3.8 million, to take ninth place from The Wolf of Wall Street at $3.4 million.]
(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Kevin Hart by subscribing to TIME)
The theme of armed men in trouble has birthed the new year’s two major hits: the Mark Wahlberg war movie Lone Survivor, which opened in two theaters Christmas week but has earned $100 million plus since going wide of Jan. 10; and Ride Along, which has topped $90 million since its Jan. 17th debut. Ride Along became the first live-action comedy to win three consecutive weekends since Tropic Thunder in Aug. 2008, and the first film costing less than $100 million to manage the hat trick since The Help in 2011.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Lone Survivor)
To three-peat, a movie usually needs to be either an unstoppable hit (Gravity, Inception, Alice in Wonderland) or the launch or extension of a major franchise (The Hobbit, The Avengers, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga). But some films take three in a row thanks to weak competition during a seasonal slump. The absence of a strong rival gave The Help its third-week victory on Labor Day 2011, and Ride Along a win here. Its $12 million gross this time is the lowest figure for any No. 1 movie since Skyfall won in early Dec. 2012, on its fifth weekend.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Ride Along)
What about the Super Bowl jinx? There’s no such thing. Yes, movie attendance takes a big dip on Sunday, when people watch the year’s highest-rated TV show, but theaters are open for business on Friday and Saturday. And studios have learned to counter-program, with movies aimed at teens and females. The fare may be horror films (which have accounted for seven of the past 11 Super Bowl weekend chart-toppers) or, occasionally, a pre-Valentine’s Day romance — like Dear John, which earned $30.5 million this weekend in 2010, and finally unseated the seven-week title holder Avatar.
(READ: When Dear John beat Avatar)
Four times in the past decade, the top two films on Super Bowl weekend have totaled more than $40 million. This time, Ride Along and That Awkward Moment barely scraped up $20 million. The one-two Super Bowl punch hasn’t been so feeble since 2002, when Black Hawk Down and Snow Dogs, both in their third week of wide release, combined for $21.3 million. Back then, ticket prices were much lower; in today’s dollars, that take would be a respectable $30.7 million.
Instead of horror or dewy love stories, audiences got That Awkward Moment — an R-rated comedy about three guys (Efron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller) who swear off the burden of relationships for the sexual liberation of hookups. Efron, hatched to movie fame from Disney’s High School Musical series, had enjoyed a few $20 million successes between 2009 (17 Again) and 2012 (The Lucky One), before enduring the ex-teen star’s inevitable rehab phase.
Jordan scored as the lead in Fruitvale Station, and Teller earned indie cred with The Spectacular Now. But the teaming of these three didn’t result in the dose of Viagra that their characters get in the movie; the CinemaScore was a less-than-arousing “B” from its audience of young (61 percent under the age of 25) females (64 percent). Made for just $8 million, the film will neither sink nor raise the profiles of its appealing star trio. In their careers, it’s likely to be That Forgettable Moment.
Disney’s magic moment with Frozen may extend into infinity. Since opening in late November, the two-princess movie has remained in the top five each weekend, earning more than $360 million at the domestic box office and another $500 million abroad. And to put a ribbon on the money bag, the movie won five big prizes at last night’s Annie Awards, honoring film animation: Feature, Director, Voice Actor (Josh Gad as Olaf the Snowman), Production Design and, not least, Music. Putting a sing-along version in 2,500 theaters this weekend was a smart idea for a property that is as much a musical as a movie phenomenon. Last week Frozen returned to the top of the Billboard charts, making it the first soundtrack to be the No. 1 album for three weeks or more since Efron’s High School Musical 2. And in a year or two, the show will be headed to Broadway.
(READ: The sing-along version of Grease)
In bleak midwinter, moviegoers might want to take respite from Frozen and enjoy a sweltering love story. What better counter-programming for the Super Bowl than a steamy romance, right? But Labor Day, in which depressed housewife and mom Kate Winslet falls for soulful killer Josh Brolin over a long summer weekend, had a hard time kidnapping customers. In nearly 2,600 theaters, the PG-13-rated valentine to bondage earned a tepid $5.2 million. Produced for a fairly thrifty $18 million, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel received a “B” CinemaScore that does not augur strong word-of-mouth.
Brolin, a strong co-star in popular ensemble films like No Country for Old Men, Men in Black 3 and True Grit, hasn’t yet proved himself a leading man; his star turn in Spike Lee’s recent thriller Oldboy cadged a meager $2.2 million. And Winslet, the six-time Oscar nominee (and winner for The Reader), has not been the female lead in a film grossing as much as $60 million at the domestic box office since — yikes! — Titanic. Reitman, far from his comedy wheelhouse (Juno, Up in the Air), tried the dead-serious approach to desperate love, but found few takers for the spectacle of a lonely woman trussed up and spoon-fed chili by a sexy killer.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Labor Day)
Now, if the setting of Labor Day was different—say, early February—and Stephen Colbert had let her taste his 48-meat stew… nah, that probably wouldn’t have worked either.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Ride Along, $12.3 million; $93 million, third week
2. Frozen, $9.3 million; $360 million, 11th week
3. That Awkward Moment, $9 million, first weekend
4. The Nut Job, $7.6 million; $50.2 million, third week
5. Lone Survivor, $7.1 million; $104.8 million, sixth week
6. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, $5.4 million; $39 million, third week
7. Labor Day, $5.3 million, first weekend
8. American Hustle, $4.3 million; $132.1 million, eighth week
9. The Wolf of Wall Street, $3.55 million; $104 million, sixth week
10. I, Frankenstein, $3.52 million; $14.5 million, second week