Do today's moviegoers even remember what the movie landscape was like 15 years ago? That's how long it's been since Vin Diesel's last "xXx" movie, as well as M. Night Shyamalan's last monster hit.

This weekend saw both Diesel and Shyamalan test moviegoers' memories, and while pundits predicted modest successes for both "xXx: The Return of Xander Cage" and Shyamalan's "Split," the competition wasn't even close. "Xander Cage" opened as expected, with an estimated $20.0 million, but "Split" earned more than twice as much, topping the box office chart (and exceeding expectations) with an estimated $40.2 million. That's the fourth biggest January opening of all time.

How did "Split," a low-budget ($5 million) horror movie with no box office stars to speak of (sorry, James McAvoy, but it's true), leave "Fast and Furious" mainstay Diesel's return to his other big action franchise in the dust? Here are some of the ways.

1. January Is a Good Month for Scary Fare
Or at least decent quality horror. Which is why "The Bye Bye Man" was the top new release last weekend -- and why "Underworld: Blood Wars" is unlikely to recoup its $35 million budget in North American ticket sales. In any case, with January's multiplex usually filled with prestige Oscar hopefuls and leftover holiday blockbusters, horror looks increasingly like smart counter-programming.

2. Young Female Appeal
One reason horror fills a niche at this time of year is that no other genre targets young women so directly. Look at "Split," with its three young heroines.

By contrast, "Xander Cage" stars a 49-year-old man, returning to the spy-movie action fare that he sold, perhaps more convincingly, when he was 34. And unlike "Xander Cage," "Split" wasn't trying to draw viewers who were more likely to spend this weekend watching NFL playoffs.

3. Blumhouse
In any case, the real star of "Split" isn't "X-Men" regular McAvoy or the three little-known actresses who confront the kidnapper he plays; it's writer/director Shyamalan and low-budget hitmaker Blumhouse.

The "Sixth Sense" creator is a brand name, albeit a tarnished one. His last huge hit, "Signs," was 15 years ago, and his creative overreach with such flops as "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening" made him appear less the master of twisty suspense than the butt of jokes. But over the past few years, he's teamed with producer Jason Blum, a godfather of low-budget horror hits who's been able to keep the once-profligate Shyamalan more disciplined. The results have been movies such as 2015's "The Visit," a horror hit that helped restore the director's reputation.

Indeed, while it's not clear if today's young audiences remember "The Sixth Sense," "Signs," or "Unbreakable" (which gets one hell of a callback in "Split"), they do seem to have forgotten "Lady" and "Happening."
Meanwhile, Diesel has done tremendously well with the "Fast and Furious" franchise, but he's had trouble turning his other franchises, notably the "Riddick" movies, into domestic hits. (All luring in crowds when he's not behind the wheel of his hit action franchise.)

The "xXx" franchise doesn't have a lot of good will, even though the film that launched it earned $142 million back in 2002. That's because Diesel dropped out of the second film, the terrible "xXx: State of the Union," leaving Ice Cube to carry the movie. It flopped domestically with just $27 million, and there hasn't been another "xXx" film since 2005. The title of the new film touts the return of Diesel's character, but that wasn't enough to sell the franchise to newbies or make older viewers care. Maybe his fans are saving their money for the next "Furious" installment, due in April.

4. Good Reviews and THAT FREAKIN' ENDING
Not that horror or action fans really care about reviews, but "Split" did score a healthy 76 percent "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, while "Xander Cage" earned just 42 percent.

The reviews do suggest, however, that the opinions of older moviegoers mattered more than pundits predicted. After all, they're the ones who still read what critics have to say. They're also probably the ones who helped "Split" cross over well beyond its target audience to reach $40.2 million. And they're the ones "Xander Cage" was depending on to come see a middle-aged star revive a long-dormant franchise.

Buzz about the film's surprise ending hit fever-pitch late Thursday/early Friday, prompting several entertainment sites to post interviews and/or think-pieces about the ballsy, out-of-left-field sequence. The writer-director is known for twist endings, and the online chatter may have lead many ticketbuyers to see his latest WTF surprise.

5. The State of the Marketplace
The Cheeto may have stressed "America First" and "Buy American" during his inauguration speech on Friday, but as this column has noted, that's not the principle that drives big-studio franchise filmmaking anymore. For movies with lavish budgets and expensive stars, the overseas audience is now much more important than the domestic one.

Exhibit A is the recent "Underworld" sequel, which few viewers here cared about, but which had earned more than $40 million abroad before it even opened in the U.S. and has so far earned 62 percent of its total take from foreign filmgoers.

So it is with Diesel, whose movies tend to do much better outside America than inside. That's why Paramount, which has been on a chilly streak lately, was willing to pick up the "xXx" franchise rights from Sony and spend $85 million on "Xander Cage." And it's a gamble that's already paying off, with $50.0 million earned from 53 foreign markets, more than the double what the movie has earned here.

Not that "Split" isn't looking for an overseas payoff as well, but Universal did make the American release a priority, generating homegrown word-of-mouth by screening it at Fantastic Fest in Austin last September and by hosting 24 sneak previews since (one for each of McAvoy's character's multiple personalities).

As a result, "Split" has earned 87 percent of its take so far in North America. Trump may have become president because of voter concerns over outsourcing, but when it comes to low-budget thrillers, we're still number one.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Poster
xXx: Return of Xander Cage
PG-132017
In Theaters on January 20, 2017

After coming out of self-imposed exile, daredevil operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) must race against... Read More

Split Movie Poster
Split
PG-132016
Based on 47 critics

Though Kevin (James McAvoy) has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher... Read More

categories Movies, Box Office, Horror