box office big hero 6 interstellarEven as recently as a week ago, "Interstellar" looked like not only the likely winner of this weekend's box office derby but also the first surefire blockbuster of the season. After all, buzz has been building for months, between the heat of its collaboration between two of Hollywood's most popular players (2014 Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey and thinking-fan's-action-spectacle director Christopher Nolan) and the production's carefully cultivated air of secrecy. Plus, its competition was an animated movie based on an obscure Marvel Comics title.

And yet, when the moon dust cleared, it was "Big Hero 6" that was the projected winner, with an estimated $56.2 million, compared to a $50.0 million estimated debut for "Interstellar." Not that 50 mil is anything to complain about, but given that some pundits had predicted a $62 million weekend and a No. 1 opening for Nolan's film, he and distributor Paramount must be miffed.

In retrospect, however, a closer race should have been predicted between two movies that actually have a lot in common ($165 million budgets, epic sci-fi plots, lots of big-studio hype). Seeing where the two films match up, however, it shouldn't have been that surprising that "Big Hero 6" carved out a small but decisive victory over "Interstellar."

Here's how the competition played out in eight different areas.

Brand Names. In this corner, there's Nolan, famed for the "Dark Knight" trilogy and "Inception," movies that proved that big-studio blockbusters can be bleak, thorny, and intelligent, and still rake in nine figures. Plus, there was McConaughey, of whom neither TV nor film viewers can get enough, and "Dark Knight Rises" actress Anne Hathaway, who's been away long enough for us to miss her. In the other corner, however, were Disney and Marvel. The two have been an unbeatable combo lately (everything from "The Avengers" to "Guardians of the Galaxy"). Plus, Disney animation (the non-Pixar branch) has been on a roll lately with such huge hits as "Frozen" and "Wreck-It Ralph," a movie whose geek cred boded well for "Big Hero 6." So, edge goes to the large white robot.

Reviews. Not that they matter so much, but it certainly helps that critics raved nearly unanimously for "Big Hero 6." For "Interstellar," surprisingly, not so much. A few high-profile dissenters -- a rarity for a Nolan film -- may have cast a pall for those older viewers who still care what critics think.

Word-of-Mouth. As measured by CinemaScore grades, "Big Hero 6" earned a nearly perfect A grade, while "Interstellar" had to settle for a B+, a grade that indicates a lack of enthusiasm among viewers who might otherwise have strongly recommended the film to others.

Formats. This may have been the real sticking point. Paramount was the first studio, a few months ago, to go purely digital and announce its intention to stop sending celluloid prints to theaters, yet film purist Nolan got the studio -- seemingly at the last minute -- to send out hundreds of prints in 35MM, 70MM, and 70MM IMAX reels for advance screenings before his movie's big digital rollout this weekend. Since most theaters (strong-armed by the studios) have spent the last few years making the expensive conversion from film to digital projection, few were equipped to screen "Interstellar" in Nolan's preferred formats. Some theaters dug their old film projectors out of mothballs, some cobbled together celluloid projectors from spare parts, and many scrambled to find projectionists who still knew how to run the old machines. The result, according to anecdotal reports, was a number of screenings with technical glitches. And that frustration may have hurt the movie, both in the box office take of those pre-Friday screenings and in the film's word-of-mouth. Plus, fans may have been confused by the six possible analog and digital formats they had to choose from.

By contrast, "Big Hero 6" opened in digital 2D and 3D, as most animated films do these days, and did a respectable amount of its business (29 percent) in the latter, higher-priced format. "Interstellar" did well in IMAX, suggesting that people did want the kind of immersive experience that large-screen format brought to the space opera (à la last year's "Gravity") -- they just didn't want it in old-school celluloid.

Theater Count. Both films opened wide with more than 3,500 screens, but "Big Hero 6" was playing in 200 more venues than "Interstellar." All other things being equal, that alone would have made a big difference. But all things weren't equal, especially...

Running Time. "Big Hero 6" runs under about an hour and 45 mins, pretty long for a cartoon. But "Interstellar" runs nearly three hours. So there were probably fewer showings per day for Nolan's film at most venues.

Youth Appeal. Both films were nearly evenly divided between male and female moviegoers. But the PG-rated Disney toon drew a much bigger family audience, with 58 percent of its viewers under 25. By contrast, the PG-13-rated "Interstellar" drew just 25 percent of its audience from the under-25 crowd.

Momentum. Disney has done pretty well overseas with "Big Hero 6," which opened in many countries before it opened here and grossed $23 million along the way. But "interstellar" has already grossed $80 million abroad. Disney has done a better job hyping its overseas grosses, however, making "Hero" look like a more impressive contender before its domestic debut this weekend. Still, it's in international grosses where "Interstellar" may finally get the last laugh.

categories Movies, Box Office