The movie industry braced for the coming storm of "The Force Awakens" over a quiet weekend where "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2" notched its fourth-straight week atop the box office and Ron Howard's whaling tale "In the Heart of the Sea" capsized.
With "The Force Awakens" lurking, few studios wanted to push out a new release ahead of the expected box-office behemoth. That left the final chapter of Lionsgate's "Hunger Games" saga to remain No. 1 with $11.3 million according to studio estimates Sunday, bringing its domestic total to $245 million.
"In the Heart of the Sea," starring Chris Hemsworth, was the only major new wide release to test the pre-"Star Wars" waters. But hopes for the Warner Bros. film sank with an estimated $11 million despite a production budget around $100 million.
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"Ron Howard is an accomplished, terrific filmmaker who took this ambitious project on as a real passion, and we're proud to have made it with him," said Jeff Goldstein, domestic distribution head for Warner Bros.
Though Goldstein acknowledged it was a disappointing start, he hopes that "In the Heart of the Sea" __ about the shipwreck of the Essex, which inspired Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" __ will benefit over the Christmas holiday by getting out ahead of "The Force Awakens," which opens Thursday night.
"There's a cultural phenomenon around the corner," Goldstein said. "Our hope was to get in in front of it and get some word of mouth so that when you get down to Christmas week — we leapfrog over this coming week __ that you can break through the clutter of those other new movies."
In limited release, Adam McKay's comic rending of the economic collapse, "The Big Short," opened strongly with $720,000 in eight theaters. The Paramount Pictures release came into the weekend riding good reviews and a wave of nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, where it landed four nods including best picture, comedy, as well as nominations for stars Steve Carell and Christian Bale.
Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, credited McKay for bringing a wry sense of humor to the Michael Lewis adaptation, and creating a movie both powerful and commercial. The strong response to "The Big Short" also vindicated Paramount's decision __ made after early screenings of the film __ to move the film, which opens wide on Dec. 23, into awards season from its planned release in 2016.
"We thought that we had something really special," Moore said. "The last week with all the critical attention and audience reaction has certainly proved that out."
The low-key weekend allowed Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur" to take third place with $10.5 million in its third week. Ryan Coogler's acclaimed "Rocky" sequel "Creed" followed close behind with $10.1 million in its third week. Slowly expanding Oscar contenders "Spotlight" and "Brooklyn" __ both in their sixth week __ continued to crack the top 10 with $2.5 million and $2 million, respectively.
But with "The Force Awakens" breaking advance ticket sales records, the force of "Star Wars" was felt a week before it even opens.
"There's no question that this weekend was affected by the anticipation of 'Star Wars,'" said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office data firm Rentrak. "You have countless moviegoers poised and ready to hit the multiplex later this week. We're on the cusp of an earth-shattering weekend at the box office."