The math doesn't add up.

This has been a surprisingly strong January at the box office, with Hollywood raking in more than $1 billion during a month that's traditionally a big post-holiday let-down at the multiplex. This weekend's take was 20 percent above last weekend's. So why do this weekend's four new releases seem like such box office disappointments?

Well, okay, two of them -- "Fifty Shades of Black" and "Jane Got a Gun," really are disappointments. The other two -- "Kung Fu Panda 3" and "The Finest Hours," may just be the victims of overinflated expectations. We have to keep remembering: this is still January, box office no-man's-land. Expecting too much of certain movies because other similar movies did okay at this time of year is foolish.
Really, the makers of "Panda 3" should be pretty happy with the movie's estimated $41.0 million take, even though that opening is on the lower-end of expectations. After all, it is a third installment and it comes nearly five years after the last one (an eternity for the kid-movie audience). That it did as well as it did -- debuting at No. 1, claiming the third-biggest January opening ever -- is a tribute to the strength of the franchise, the film's positive reviews, and the weakness of the competition. It's still the lowest opening of the three "Kung Fu Panda" movies, but the first two opened in the summer, not in the dead of January.

Similarly, hopes were overly high for "Finest Hours." Despite the seemingly crowd-pleasing storyline and period setting of this "Perfect Storm"-esque true story of a harrowing Coast Guard rescue at sea, "Hours" came in fourth place with $10.3 million. That total is well below expectations, and doesn't bode well for the film to recoup its estimated $70 million production budget.

So why did "Finest" sink? While Chris Pine is the lead in this ensemble, he is not a box office draw outside of playing Captain Kirk. And the actors surrounding him also lack the star wattage to put butts in seats. The movie got only middling reviews, which hurts when you're trying to attract an older audience. And the "Finest Hours" audience was definitely older, with Disney estimating that 82 percent of the viewers were over 25. It's pretty hard to generate a blockbuster without having some youth appeal.
Imitating the successes of Januaries past was also a problem for Marlon Wayans, whose horror spoof "A Haunted House" was a hit three years ago at this time. Still, despite predictions in the $10-11 million range, he couldn't duplicate that success with his latest spoof, "Fifty Shades of Black," which opened in ninth place with an estimated $6.2 million. It didn't help that Wayans was competing for the same audiences who are seeing holdovers "Ride Along 2" and "Dirty Grandpa." But what hurt the movie the most was probably its terrible reviews and weak word-of-mouth, as measured by a C grade at CinemaScore.

The saddest entry of the weekend is "Jane Got a Gun," the Natalie Portman western with a notoriously troubled production history. Portman, who co-produced and stars in the film, shepherded it through three years of cast and director changes, a distributor bankruptcy, and multiple release date delays. Still, no one thought the film would open higher than seven figures. But it didn't even reach that bar.

Despite opening on 1,210 screens, "Jane" debuted at No. 17 with just an estimated $803,000. Not that average moviegoers cared about or even knew about the movie's unfortunate backstory. But distributor The Weinstein Company, which attached trailers for "Jane" to "The Hateful Eight," should have known better than to release Portman's western so soon after Tarantino's, not to mention putting it up against the period Frontier piece "The Revenant." (Which, in its sixth weekend, still pulled in an estimated $12.4 million, good for second place.)
Plus, "Jane" is competing not just with other horse operas, but also with all the Oscar-nominated movies that are dominating the art-houses because -- all together now -- it's January. And those movies are doing reasonably well. In fact, none of the holdovers in the top 15 slots on the chart lost more than 39 percent of last week's business. The fact that there wasn't a huge East Coast blizzard or NFL playoffs this weekend certainly helped, but still, such strong legs are a sign of good health for the box office overall.

On the whole, domestic sales this January are 3 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year. We didn't have an "American Sniper" this January, but we did have "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which more than made up for it. So, on balance, the month looks better than this weekend's new releases would suggest. Still, Hollywood will surely be happy to see January end and will cross its fingers for February's groundhogs to predict an early spring.
categories Movies, Box Office