Forget it, Jake, it's January.

Like the title neighborhood in the movie "Chinatown," January at the box office is a dark and confusing place where nothing good ever happens.

That's how it played out this weekend, anyway, where the best that three new wide-release movies -- "Dirty Grandpa," "The Boy," and "The 5th Wave" -- could do was battle it out for fourth place with last week's flop "13 Hours" (pictured). And it was nearly a four-way tie, with the three new movies hovering around $11 million and "13 Hours" a tad behind with an estimated $9.8 million.
But even the hit holdover movies, including "The Revenant," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and "Ride Along 2," all underperformed this weekend. "Revenant" came out on top, but with an estimated $16.0 million, well below the $20 to $25 million that analysts had predicted for the buzzed-about drama's third weekend of wide release.

Blame it on the weather (thanks, Winter Storm Jonas), or blame it on Sunday's NFL conference championship games. Or maybe weekends like this are why the studios generally consider January an afterthought instead of a staging ground for movies in which they've invested high hopes.

But there were other box office lessons this weekend besides stay away from January. For instance:

1. Zac Efron Is Not a Box Office Draw
Sorry, millennials, but it's true. Aside from "Neighbors," where Seth Rogen was arguably the bigger draw, he's not had anything resembling a sizable hit since "The Lucky One" in 2012. His "Dirty Grandpa" co-star Robert De Niro is similarly hit-and-miss, but his last major release, September's "The Intern," was a (modest) hit, while Efron's last film, August's "We Are Your Friends," had one of the lowest openings ever for a wide-release film ($1.8 million). If the filmmakers thought this casting was the way to pull in both younger and older men, they were mistaken.

2. If You Want to Attract Older Audiences, Reviews Still Matter
Given the well-earned R rating given to "Dirty Grandpa," it seems clear that its makers expected to draw an older audience. But that's the audience that still reads movie critics, who gave the film a dismal 8 percent positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a meager 18 percent at Metacritic. Reviewers seemed to take special relish in denouncing the spring-break comedy as puerile and unfunny. They also piled-on the laments for De Niro's long, slow fall from grace. (Some of the best barbs are collected here.)

Lionsgate seemed to know the reviews weren't going to be good and embargoed print critics from publishing them until Saturday, so as not to jeopardize those Friday-night grosses. Of course, telling critics not to publish reviews of a movie just makes them angrier, and that may have resulted in even less flattering reviews. Despite audiences responding slightly more favorably than critics -- giving "Grandpa" a B CinemaScore -- that "just okay" word of mouth clearly didn't help the film sell too many more tickets.

3. It's Very Hard to Create the Next "Hunger Games"
Or "Divergent," or "Maze Runner," or insert-the-name-of-your-favorite-young-adult-dystopian-future-saga here. But one way not to do it is to go cheap, as Sony did, spending only a reported $38 million to bring the first of Rick Yancey's "5th Wave" alien invasion novels to the screen. Also, star Chloe Grace Moretz is a fine actress, but the 18-year-old has never carried a movie that opened to more than $16.1 million. Oh, and if Sony really had faith in "5th Wave" as a franchise launcher, it would have released it in the summer, late fall, early spring -- well, pretty much any time other than January.

4. If Two or More Movies Chase the Same Audience, It's Best to Be First
That's why it was probably a mistake to release horror film "The Boy" just two weeks after horror film "The Forest." But it's also why it was a mistake to release "5th Wave" this weekend, since, like the two January horror movies, it's chasing the young female audience.

5. The Oscar Bounce Helps -- to a Point
Capitalizing on its 12 Academy Award nominations and its Oscar buzz, "Revenant" added several hundred IMAX and premium-large-format venues this weekend, whose mega-screen ticket surcharges should have resulted in a $20 to $25 million weekend. But not even Oscar attention, extra screens, surcharges, and proven box office draw DiCaprio could keep the film from losing 50 percent of last weekend's business.

And that's how it was for many of the Oscar-nominated movies, with only "Room," "Anomalisa," "Bridge of Spies," "45 Years," and "Trumbo" seeing modest (six-figure) increases following Oscar nods.

It's great that Oscar buzz is helping all these movies sell more tickets than they would otherwise, but aside from "Revenant," we're not talking about huge box office boosts from the nominations. No wonder "Ride Along" star Ice Cube was so dismissive of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in an interview this week. The Academy voters may not offer many accolades to movies with black stars, but audiences seem to prefer them to many of the Academy-approved offerings.

categories Movies, Box Office