This was a good weekend for movies.

Yes, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," racked up a few more records, including becoming the first movie to gross more than $800 million in North America, and it took its fourth weekend crown in a row with an estimated $41.6 million. But it got a run for its money from "The Revenant," which expanded wide this weekend and earned a second-place finish with an estimated $38 million.

That's about twice as well as anyone expected the film to do. After all, it's an R-rated art film with a punishing length of nearly three hours, a period setting, and horrific violence. Yet in the dead of winter, people were lining up to see Leonardo DiCaprio fight off bears, eat raw bison liver and use a horse as a sleeping bag.

How did that happen? Here are some of the film's secret weapons.
1. Leonardo DiCaprio
For years, DiCaprio has largely been a consistent draw at the box office -- one of the few A-Listers left who can open a picture at both home and abroad. Among his last six features, only one ("J. Edgar") grossed less than $116 million over the course of its domestic run. Plus, he's been absent from the screen for two years, since "The Wolf of Wall Street," so he gave us time to miss him. Oh, and there's one more thing that makes his performance here special...

2. Lots of Oscar Buzz
Over the past quarter-century, DiCaprio has been nominated for for acting Oscars and one producing Oscar (for "The Wolf of Wall Street") but he has never won. But his "Revenant" performance made him the front-runner for a Best Actor Academy Award this year, even before most people had seen it. How? In part because of stories of the Method nature of that performance, in which he reportedly endured many of the same hardships as his character. To the extent that the average moviegoer is aware of that hype -- well, who wouldn't want to see if the work on screen lives up to it? And who wouldn't want to see Leo finally get his due from the Academy?
3. The Follow-up to "Birdman"
Speaking of Oscar buzz, Alejandro González Iñárritu (pictured left) isn't exactly a household name, but people do know who he is now after his Oscar victories last year for "Birdman." At the very least, viewers know that Iñarritu will give them a visually extravagant spectacle of human beings testing their limits in extreme circumstances.

4. Strong Word-of-mouth
The film's hype kicked into high gear over its two-week limited release, where -- on just four screens -- it averaged an astronomical $100,000 per-screen average.

Plus, critics have given it generally positive reviews (80 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, 77 percent at Metacritic), which matters to the largely older audience targeted by marketing. (Indeed, exit polling found that 73 percent of "Revenant" ticketbuyers were over 25.) Once the film opened wide this weekend, on 3,375 screens, viewers gave it a B+ CinemaScore, indicating decent word-of-mouth. So it's not just jaded film critics starved for sensation who are recommending the movie.
5. Tom Hardy Doing His Thing
Leo's "Revenant" co-star is not the box office draw that DiCaprio is, in part because he likes to balance his big-budget Hollywood films with smaller indies, and in part because he's such a chameleon that he's hard to pigeonhole (there's no typical Tom Hardy character). His presence in a movie is almost always a sign of quality, making his team-up opposite DiCaprio a no-brainer for ticketbuyers and the actor's fans.

6. Quentin Tarantino
Usually, when two superficially similar movies enter the marketplace, the one that's released first has the advantage. But not if viewers aren't all that thrilled with said movie. That's why "The Hateful Eight" is the best advertising that "The Revenant" could have asked for.

After all, reviewers and fans are finding Tarantino's violent western the most problematic of the director's films to date. After a strong opening during its 70MM large-screen roadshow engagement, the movie has struggled in wide release in digital-print screenings at the multiplex. This weekend, it added 464 screens (for a total of 2,938) and still lost 60 percent of last weekend's business, taking in an estimated $6.4 million and finishing in sixth place. Audiences are choosing to spend their snowbound-and-violent-auteurist-western dollars on the alternative.
7. The January Doldrums
January is traditionally the month where studios dump their afterthought releases, so any movie that stands out is going to benefit. Last year, "American Sniper" took advantage of the January slow period and raked in a fortune in wide release. "The Revenant" seems to have learned that movie's lesson: Even a violent, arty, lengthy drama can succeed in January.

Especially if it has a bankable leading man, a director with a reputation for quality, awards hype, and no serious competition on the same playing field.
categories Movies, Box Office