box office christmas moviesWarner Bros.

At your house, Christmas may be a time of peace on Earth and good will toward men, but at the multiplex, this Christmas was the site of a bruising brawl, with five new, wide-release movies taking on the established holdovers. In the end, the holdovers won, with half of all receipts going to four movies that had been in theaters at least two weeks.

Still, every beating is a character-building experience (at least in the movies), and this one comes with some hard-learned lessons too. Here are some of them:

1. Five New Wide Releases on a Holiday Weekend Is Too Many
Even in April and August, it's probably too many, but it's especially true at Christmastime, when family, weather, buying gifts, and returning gifts are all additional competitors for the attention of potential moviegoers. This weekend's new releases very likely canceled each other out, leaving "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" to top the chart for a third straight week, with six-week-old "Frozen" not far behind. As a result, no new film debuted higher than fifth place, and two didn't even crack the top 10.

2. At Christmastime, It Helps to Be Kid-Friendly
One reason "Hobbit" and "Frozen" packed 'em in (to the tune of about $30 million each) is that you could take the whole family. The raunchy antics of "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" and "American Hustle" (this week's No. 3 and No. 4)? Not so much. Nor for the middle-aged male fantasies of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or the violent slugfests of "Grudge Match" and "47 Ronin." And certainly not the three-hour orgy of call girls and cocaine that is "The Wolf of Wall Street."

3. Poor Word-of-Mouth Needn't Sink a Film
Critics may have loved Martin Scorsese's "Wolf," but audiences gave it only a C at CinemaScore. Maybe they didn't find the movie Christmas-y enough, or maybe its length and excess wore them out, or maybe, having seen Leonardo DiCaprio as a hard-partying Long Island crook in "The Great Gatsby," they felt they'd already seen "Wolf" just a few months ago. And yet, "Wolf" did better than any of this weekend's other new wide releases, earning an estimated $18.5 million from Friday to Sunday and $34.3 million in the five days since its release on Christmas Day.

4. The Pundits Can't Be Trusted
OK, they predicted a three-peat for "The Hobbit," and they guessed correctly that "Walter Mitty" would earn about $13 million, but they overestimated the take on the other four new releases, sometimes by a factor of two or three. Then again, they're only following the tracks laid down by the studio analysts, the ones who thought they could all make money by releasing five competing movies this weekend.

5. Do People Really Want to Watch Two Old Guys Fight?
Probably not, even if they're the guys who starred in "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" more than three decades ago. It's not much of a surprise that the prospect of watching 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone take on 70-year-old Robert De Niro, even in a comedy, didn't appeal to many. ("Grudge Match" opened at No. 11, grossing an estimated $7.3 million from Friday to Sunday and $13.4 million for the five-day holiday weekend.) The only surprise is that there were box office trackers who expected it to do twice as well.

6. Every Once In a While, Hollywood Delivers a Really Impressive Flop
Or: Not Every Martial-Arts-Flavored Action Spectacle Keanu Reeves Stars In Is the Next "Matrix." That includes this fantasy adventure (based on a true story that has become part of Japanese folklore), on which Universal reportedly spent between $175 and $200 million. With this weekend's opening (No. 9, with an estimated $9.9 million for the weekend and $20.6 million since its Wednesday debut), the movie stands likely to become an financial sinkhole the likes of which we haven't seen since this summer's "The Lone Ranger."

Hollywood is often accused of making nothing but formulaic blockbuster-hopefuls that are produced and marketed according to strict formulas that remove all risk (and originality) from the process, but sometimes, they do take a risk ("47 Ronin" is, after all, an original screenplay, not based on a comic book, a novel, a TV show, or a story familiar to Western audiences), and the whole thing goes off the rails. This is one of those rare moments, so cherish it.

7. Justin Bieber Is Not the All-Conquering Pop Culture Force He Was Eight Months Ago
Or a year ago, or whatever short-term unit of measure you want to use. His new concert film "Believe" opened way down at No. 14, with just an estimated $2.0 million since Friday, and $4.3 million since Wednesday. Maybe his bizarre behavior in recent months has reduced his fanbase, or maybe the rumored announcement of his retirement at age 19 had the remaining fans too depressed to buy tickets. Either way, the new movie and its poor showing aren't likely to generate too many new "Beliebers."

8. A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
As much as these new wide-releases underperformed, this was still the eighth-best weekend of 2013 at North American theaters, one that saw almost $200 million in ticket sales. And while half that money went to "Hobbit," "Frozen," "Anchorman," and "American Hustle," much of the rest went to Oscar-hopeful movies that have finally expanded beyond the art-house and penetrated the multiplex.

"Hustle" is one of those, and it saw a boost in business over last weekend. So did such awards-seeking fare as "Saving Mr. Banks," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "Philomena," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska," "Her," "12 Years a Slave," "The Great Beauty," and "All Is Lost." Maybe viewers jumped at the chance to see these movies after weeks and months of awards hype, or maybe they just stumbled upon them after heading to the multiplex to see "Hobbit" or "Hustle." Either way, Tinseltown seemed to have enough tinsel this Christmas for everyone -- well, everyone who wasn't chasing a huge box office windfall.
CATEGORIES Box Office