box office gone girl annabelleAfter the lackluster last couple of months, Hollywood's box office analysts must be scratching their heads at their good fortune this weekend. The long summer-early-fall slump ended with not one but two huge debuts and an overall rise in sales of nearly 40 percent over last weekend.

Not only did "Gone Girl" and "Annabelle" open well above expectations, scoring nearly $40 million each, but several other of the top 10 films, both new and old, were overachievers as well. All told, this was the biggest box office weekend since "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" took the top spot from "Guardians of the Galaxy" two months ago, and it was on a par with any weekend from July.

So those head-scratching analysts must be wondering: What went right?

Some possible answers:

Revenge of the Grown-Ups. Sure, "Gone Girl" was one of the year's most anticipated movies, thanks to the popularity of Gillian Flynn's best-selling chiller and an effectively creepy campaign of trailers and posters. But director David Fincher and star Ben Affleck have box office records that are spotty at best. Predictions for this one were all over the map, from $25 to $40 million. In fact, the movie opened at an estimated $38 million, marking a career best for the director of "Seven" and "The Social Network" and making it one of the 10 best October openings ever.

Of course, "Gone Girl" is also the first serious fall Oscar contender to open big. The combination of adult drama, the film's literary pedigree, and Fincher's famously cerebral style clearly forced grown-up moviegoers off their living room sofas with a vengeance. Then again, they'd been primed in recent weeks by similarly brooding (if less lofty) adult thrillers like "The Equalizer" and "A Walk Among the Tombstones."

As for "Annabelle," its predictions, too, were all over the map. A prequel to last year's horror hit "The Conjuring," it wasn't expected to open anywhere near as well ($41.9 million), but some experts guessed it would do no better than $22 million, and almost no one guessed that it would open above $29 million. That it nearly tied "Gone Girl" with an estimated $37.2 million, despite weak reviews and so-so word-of-mouth (as measured by a B grade at CinemaScore), means it had to have drawn an audience well beyond the hardcore group of young adults expected to show up for a movie about a demon-possessed doll. In fact, studio polling found that a healthy 46 percent of "Annabelle" ticket-buyers were over 25.

Given how many older folks went to see both of these movies, you'd have expected a steep drop for last week's winner, "The Equalizer." But it slipped just 44 percent from last week's premiere, finishing third with a solid $19 million according to estimates, good for a two-week total of $64.5 million.

Well, OK, Youngsters, Too. "The Boxtrolls," the only really family-friendly film among the top seven movies, saw an even slimmer second-week decline, losing just 28 percent of last weekend's business, for a fourth-place finish with an estimated $12.4 million and a two-week total of $32.5 million.

As for teen thriller "The Maze Runner," it's also holding up well in its third weekend. The fifth-place finisher slid just 31 percent for a take estimated at $12.0 million, good for a total to date of $73.9 million.

Oh, and Christians. Even "Left Behind," which no one expected to earn more than $5 million, outperformed predictions by finishing sixth with an estimated $6.9 million. That's not as good as the $9.2 million debut of "God's Not Dead," another faith-based film released earlier this year by the same distributor (Freestyle), but it's better than a lot of recent Nicolas Cage movies. The clear intent of the producers of the apocalyptic thriller (a remake of the tiny-budgeted 2001 film starring Kirk Cameron) was to reach beyond the choir to appeal to secular audiences used to big-name stars and big-budget production values. (Well, "big" is relative; at $16 million, it's quite expensive for a Christian film but minuscule compared to the typical nine-figure Hollywood action blockbuster.) Whether or not it succeeded in turning the first book in the popular Christian novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins into glossy Hollywood-level fare -- and most critics and even many moviegoers (who gave it a weak B- grade at CinemaScore) think it didn't -- "Left Behind" did manage to attract more viewers than expected. So maybe some heathens showed up after all.

Granted, it'll be tough for these movies -- and the box office in the coming weeks, to remain at this level. Horror movies tend to suffer steep second-week drops, though "Annabelle's" proximity to Halloween may give it some legs. "Gone Girl" had strong reviews, but it also had just so-so word-of-mouth (a B grade at CinemaScore), so it may not last long either. Meanwhile, other movies targeting the same demographics as these and the other top six films will start to elbow these modest hits out of the marketplace over the next few weeks. Still, the old rising-tide-lifts-all-boats adage appears to be true: hits bring moviegoers to the multiplex, where they turn other movies into hits.

categories Movies, Box Office