January is generally regarded as a wasteland for new, wide-release movies, a dumping ground for pictures that studios can't figure out how to market, even while Oscar-bait films expand from late-December limited releases. That has held true already in 2014, but the box office has also offered a couple of bona fide big hits, some noteworthy failures, and a few lessons about what works and what doesn't at the multiplex these days.
Here's how the players have fared.
Winner:Kevin Hart. The comic was already a proven box-office draw in his own stand-up concert films, but the success of "Ride Along" proves he's come into his own as someone who can carry a scripted comedy. It topped the charts for the second time this weekend and earned another estimated $21.2 million, for an impressive 10-day total of $75.4 million. (This for a movie that cost only a reported $25 million to make.) True, Hart was also a co-star of current flop "Grudge Match," but since that movie was sold on the strength of battling geezers Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, no one's going to blame Hart for its failure.
Loser: Horror films. In recent years, January has been seen as a decent time to release horror movies, but none of this month's frightening fare scared up much business. This weekend last year saw "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" open with nearly $20 million; 52 weeks later, the similar "I, Frankenstein" opened this weekend in sixth place with an estimated $8.3 million, about half what pundits had predicted. Meanwhile, "Devil's Due" has earned just $12.9 million in 10 days. Even a brand-name film like "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," has mustered only $32.1 million after four weeks of release. It could be that horror audiences have grown more discerning, or maybe they're just not willing to spend extra money on retrofitted 3D for a movie as mediocre as "I, Frankenstein."
Winner: "Lone Survivor." After fall festival screenings, critics and Universal both decided the based-in-fact war drama wasn't going to clean up at the Oscar nominations the way "Zero Dark Thirty" did a year ago (in fact, it was nominated only for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing), but the studio still marketed it smartly and turned it into an action smash. After five weeks, it's still the No. 2 movie this weekend, earning another estimated $12.6 million for a total to date of $93.6 million. Sometime this week, it'll pass the $95.7 million domestic total of "Zero Dark Thirty" to become the highest-grossing film yet about the war in Afghanistan.
Loser:Jack Ryan. The most recent effort to reboot the 12-years-dormant Tom Clancy spy-film franchise has pretty much fizzled. In its second weekend, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" finished fifth and earned an estimated $8.8 million, for a two-week total of $30.2 million, about half what the film cost to make. It didn't help that the movie had to compete against "Lone Survivor," but it's also apparent that Chris Pine alone does not make a franchise. (Yes, he's also Captain Kirk, but the stars of the new batch of "Star Trek" movies are arguably the U.S.S. Enterprise and writer/director J.J. Abrams.)
Losers: Reboots. In fact, none of this month's would-be franchise-relaunchers did well. Besides "Jack Ryan" and "I, Frankenstein," there was also "The Legend of Hercules." In three weeks, that $70 million film has earned just $17.0 million, with Kellan Lutz confirming the same lesson about star power that Pine and "I, Frankenstein"'s Aaron Eckhart proved in their films.
Winner: "The Nut Job." It's hard to launch an original kiddie cartoon, but "The Nut Job" did it well, finishing third this weekend with an estimated $12.3 million and a two-week total of $40.3 million. That's especially good at a time when the apparently unstoppable "Frozen" was still going strong. (After 10 weeks, that film is still in the top five, finishing in fourth place this weekend with an estimated $9.0 million and a total of $347.8 million.)
Winners: Oscar-nominated films. Almost every film nominated for an Oscar on Jan. 16 saw an immediate boost last weekend, and most continued to ride the wave this weekend as well.
Best Picture candidate "Nebraska" finally expanded to about 1,000 screens this weekend, after 11 weeks in release, and scored a decent estimated $1.4 million, for a total of $11.6 million. And that's the lowest-grossing of the nine Best Picture candidates; the highest is "Gravity," which has been playing for four months but still added another 316 screens this weekend and added an estimated $2.0 million to its total of $261.2 million. By the end of this week, four of the nine candidates will have passed the $100 million mark ("American Hustle" and "Captain Phillips" are already there, while "Wolf of Wall Street" is just $2 million shy).
But even the more art-house-y movies among the nominees -- "Her," "Dallas Buyers Club," "12 Years a Slave," "Nebraska," and "Philomena" -- are seeing modest boosts. So has "August: Osage County," which did not get a Best Picture nod, but whose acting nominations (for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts) the Weinstein Company is determined to milk to the fullest. (The movie added 360 screens this weekend and finished eighth, with an estimated $5.0 million and a five-week take of $26.5 million.) Even six-month-old "Blue Jasmine" (which is competing against "August" for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress with the nominations of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins) added eight theaters this weekend (for a total of 36) and grossed another estimated $33,000 (for a total of $33.2 million). Even movies whose theatrical runs would normally have ended weeks or months ago can still squeeze a few more drops of life out of an Oscar nomination or two.