The North American box office rebounded in a big way over Christmas weekend, easing fears that the threat levied against theaters over The Interview would curb moviegoing.
Leading the charge was Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Angelina Jolie's World War II drama Unbroken and Rob Marshall's musical Into the Woods.
In its second weekend, The Hobbit once again placed No. 1, grossing $54.5 million for the four-day weekend, including $41.4 million for the three days. The New Line and MGM tentpole has taken in nearly $170 million domestically and a sizeable $573.6 million worldwide, ensuring that it will eventually cross $1 billion.
Unbroken and Into the Woods, both launching Christmas Day, vastly overperformed, grossing $47.3 million and $46.1 million, respectively, to land high up on the list of top holiday openings. To boot, Unbroken marks one of the best showings of all time for a WWII-themed drama, while Disney's Into the Woods marks the biggest launch ever for an adaptation of a Broadway musical after Mamma Mia! ($27.8 million).
Based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling biography, Unbroken stars Jack O'Connell as World War II hero Louis Zamperini. The film, nabbing an A- CinemaScore, follows Zamperini as he's stranded in the ocean after a plane crash and then captured and tortured as a prisoner of war.
Universal made Unbroken for $65 million. Interestingly, the audience skewed slightly female (52 percent), while 72 percent of ticket buyers were over the age of 25.
Universal domestic distribution chief Nikki Rocco gave huge props to Jolie. "I don't like to think of this as a war film. It's much more than that. It's an amazing inspirational story, and that's why it is playing so well in middle America. I put on Fox News last night and Greta Van Susteren was doing a whole segment on Louis," Rocco said.
Thanks to strong interest among all demos, the $50 million Into the Woods continues Disney's winning streak at the box office. The adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical stars Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp.
"We appealed to everyone. Fifty-one percent of our business came from adults, 38 percent from families and 11 percent from teens. It's very encouraging to see that kind of balance," said Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis.
Into the Woods, receiving a B CinemaScore, earned $31.2 million for the weekend itself, only a hair behind Unbroken ($31.7 million).
Overall, revenue for the weekend was up by as much as 8 percent over last year. That's welcome news for the film business, which has endured a tough year at the box office, at least in North America. And Hollywood is currently grappling with the unprecedented hacking of Sony.
The cyberattack was reportedly waged by those unhappy with The Interview, the controversial R-rated comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as two bumbling journalists hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At the eleventh hour, Sony pulled The Interview from its Dec. 25 release after the group behind the hack attack threatened theaters. However, after President Barack Obama criticized Sony for caving, the studio announced Tuesday it would release The Interview in select independent theaters and as a pay-per-view offering on YouTube, Google Play, Xbox and Sony’s own site.
The Interview, placing No. 16, opened to an estimated $2.8 million from 331 theaters for the four-day weekend, fueled in part by flag-waving fans. In its new incarnation, the comedy wasn't destined to be a big grosser in theaters, considering its limited footprint and the fact that it was made available online Wednesday. (It was also quickly pirated.) Pay-per-view numbers weren't immediately available.
"I'm so grateful that the movie found its way into theaters, and I'm thrilled that people actually went out and saw it. The fact that people actually left their houses when they had the option of staying home is amazing," Rogen said in a statement.
Rory Bruer, Sony's president of worldwide distribution, said The Interview's release plan was "certainly unchartered territory."
Among holdovers in the top 10, Shawn Levy's family friendly Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb did brisk business in its second weekend, earning $27.9 million for the four-day weekend to come in No. 4. The threequel has now earned $55.3 million domestically, and was up a resounding 21 percent from last weekend.
Sony's Annie, opening opposite Secret of the Tomb and Hobbit last weekend, placed No. 5 for the four days with a solid $21.2 million for a domestic total of $45.8 million.
The holiday was also kind to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, which became only the second release of 2014 after Guardians of the Galaxy to jump the $300 million mark in North America, finishing Sunday with $306.7 million in domestic ticket sales. The tentpole has now earned $669.7 million globally.
After Unbroken and Into the Woods, the other two new Christmas offerings playing nationwide were Paramount's The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor who has a secret life as a gambler, and Tim Burton's Big Eyes.
Rupert Wyatt directed The Gambler, which opened to an estimated $14 million-plus, in line with expectations. The $25 million drama earned only a C+ CinemaScore, with 81 percent of the audience over the age of 25.
"The Gambler is definitely a movie aimed at adults, and we believe this film will play well into January," said Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. "And we are certainly happy to be in business with Mark Wahlberg."
Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, faltered in its four-day debut, grossing $4.4 million. It's true that the drama is playing in far fewer theaters that its competitors (1,307), but it still marks the lowest nationwide opening of Burton's career. The film, from The Weinstein Co., centers on artist Margaret Keane (Adams), whose work was claimed by her then-husband, Walter Keane.
Harvey Weinstein's shop still had plenty to celebrate; awards frontrunner The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as famed English cryptologist Alan Turing, raced into the top 10 as it expanded into 747 theaters, grossing $11 million for an early domestic total of $14.6 million.
"We're ahead of The King's Speech," noted TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis. "I think this film is resonating with many different audiences. You have Benedict fans, you have fans of the genre and it also appeals to tech heads."
Director Clint Eastwood's awards contender American Sniper also did huge business, scoring the biggest opening of all time for a limited Christmas release. The movie, based on the real-life story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, grossed $850,000 from four theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas (Kyle was from Texas) for a massive screen average of $212,500.
American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle and earning a coveted A+ CinemaScore, broke records at the ArcLight Hollywood and at the Dallas Northpark 15. The movie expands nationwide Jan. 16, the beginning of the lucrative Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
The other high-profile new specialty offering was Ava DuVernay's MLK drama, Selma, which opened in 19 theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, earning a promising $912,000 for Paramount. The awards contender expands nationwide Jan. 9.
Among other awards contenders, Fox Searchlight's Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, remained in the top 10 as it expanded into a total of 1,285 theaters, earning $5.4 million in its fourth weekend for a cume of $16.4 million.
Dec. 28, 8 a.m. Updated with weekend numbers.