"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is still king of the forest, topping the box office chart for a third straight week. But while all the kids are going to see the video game-inspired adventure, their dads are dominating the rest of the multiplex.
Testing the impressive staying power of "Jumanji" this weekend were three new wide releases, "12 Strong," "Den of Thieves," and "Forever My Girl." While "Girl" was a Nicholas Sparks-type romance that was not even predicted to crack the top 10 (it's playing on just 1,115 screens), the other two were wider releases that were both aimed at the older, male action audience that made Liam Neeson's "The Commuter" a surprise hit last week.
With three such movies in the marketplace at once, no one expected much from any of them -- maybe a debut in the low teens for Afghan War combat tale "Strong" and the high single digits for heist film "Thieves." Neither was expected to top Steven Spielberg's prestige drama "The Post," which was supposed to hold on to second place with about $15 million.
Nonetheless, all three new movies did much better than pundits had predicted. "Strong" took second place, with an estimated $16.5 million, with "Thieves" close behind on sales estimated at $15.3 million. ("The Post" fell to fourth with an estimated $12.2 million.) Even "Girl" outperformed expectations, premiering in tenth place with an estimated $4.7 million.
What the heck is going on here? Well, these are the colliding trends that seem to be in play.
1. It's January
The whole month is widely considered a no-man's land, that uncomfortable period between the big holiday releases and the newly-evolved spring blockbuster season that begins in March. It's a time when box office rules tend to go out the window, a month when late-breaking Oscar hopefuls, horror movies, lower-profile action films, and anything else the studios don't know how to market properly all jockey for position.
So far, however, there's only been one major horror film this month ("Insidious: The Last Key"), and aside from "The Post" and "Phantom Thread" (which expanded into hundreds of theaters this weekend), most of the awards-seeking movies have long since peaked. (They may see another peak next weekend, after the Oscar nominations are announced.) So that leaves the action thrillers and the miscellaneous movies. If you went to the multiplex this weekend seeing novelty, your choices were pretty much limited to "Forever My Girl" or dad-core action.
2. Because Dads Love (Bad) Action Movies
As this column noted when "Commuter" opened last weekend, Liam Neeson's core audience has been primed to expect mid-winter releases for his action movies. You'd think there wouldn't be enough audience to go around for three such films at once; indeed, "Commuter" itself slipped to seventh place this weekend, down 51 percent from its debut, to an estimated $6.7 million.
Moreover, neither "12 Strong" star Chris Hemsworth or "Den of Thieves" star Gerard Butler are considered big box office draw outside the Marvel movies and, well, whatever Butler does when he's not in Generic Action Movie/Future Occupant of Walmart's $5 DVD Bin, respectively. Oh, and there were pro football conference championships this weekend to keep male viewers at home. And yet, these three movies combined sold an estimated $38.5 million worth of tickets this weekend.
The success of "Thieves" is especially impressive considering that it's playing on 2,432 screens, compared to 3,002 for "Strong." "Thieves" actually has the higher per-screen average ($6,299, the highest of any wide-release movie this weekend), so if indie distributor STX Entertainment could have booked it on just 188 more screens, it could have beaten "Strong." It also helped that the racially mixed cast of "Thieves" helped STX market it successfully to black and Hispanic audiences.
Still, it's worth noting that the older, racially diverse action audience is still mostly a guy thing, which may be why hit-woman thriller "Proud Mary" is languishing in 11th place in its second weekend, with just an estimated $3.7 million.
3. The "American Sniper" Effect
Films about the War on Terror have been hit or miss over the years, but the ones released in January have tended to do well, or at least okay -- from "13 Hours" and "Zero Dark Thirty," to "Lone Survivor" and especially "American Sniper."
"12 Strong" resembles those films insofar as it's based on a true story and appeals to its viewers' patriotism. There's no reason why such films shouldn't do well year-round, but as with dad-friendly action movies in general, the audience has been primed to expect such movies at the beginning of the year.
Audience buzz has been the surprising key ingredient for success this season. It helped both "Strong" and "Thieves" that they earned very good word-of-mouth from paying customers, as measured by their respective A and B+ grades at CinemaScore. After all, both films earned weak reviews from critics, who still have some power to sway older viewers. Word-of-mouth also explains such current hits as "Jumanji" and especially "The Greatest Showman."
When "Jumanji" opened five weeks ago, it premiered at No. 2 with $36.2 million, and yet it's playing like a movie that debuted in first place with $100 million. It didn't top the chart until its third week of release, yet it has already earned $317.0 million. This weekend, it earned an estimated $20.0 million, down just 28 percent from a week ago. That's all down to ongoing positive recommendations from fans. Same with "Showman," which has also topped $100 million after five weeks of release -- despite a modest $14 million opening and middling reviews.
While January is typically a time when the Oscar-seeking movies that critics have been talking about for months finally open nationwide, this year's contenders aren't -- as of now -- much of a box office draw, not even for the older audiences they usually attract.
Such films as "The Post," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," "The Shape of Water," "Lady Bird," "I, Tonya," and "All the Money in the World" are not having great ticket sales. So far, "The Post" has been the most lucrative of the awards-hopefuls in current release, and it's earned just $45.2 million.
Maybe all will get the box office bump needed once the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday.