On Friday, I said I wouldn't be surprised if the weekend box office debut of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal's R-rated Lone Survivor managed to "handily exceed" expectations. After all, the based-on-a-true-story war epic was not only enjoying strong advance ticket sales, but had also drawn high praise from critics, who are hailing it as the Saving Private Ryan of our generation.
But I certainly didn't expect this.
According to preliminary totals from each studio, Lone Survivor easily won the weekend by hauling in more than $38.5 million in the U.S., nearly equal to its $40 million production budget and more than double the $15 million earned by Disney's (NYSE:DIS) second-place holdover in Frozen.
That's also more than double the high end of Comcast's own estimates, and good enough for the second-highest January opening of all time behind only the $40 million earned by 2008's Cloverfield. What's more, Lone Survivor's launch is the most successful of any post-9/11 war film, easily beating the $28.6 million grossed by 2001's Black Hawk Down, and $24.4 million from Zero Dark Thirty in 2012.
To the credit of its predecessors, however, keep in mind both Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down still technically hold an edge, having earned the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $51.1 million and $38.6 million, respectively.
But polled audiences also granted Lone Survivor a rare "A+" CinemaScore, which means the film should enjoy overwhelmingly positive word of mouth going forward -- a likely testament to the studio's efforts to avoid political statements and focus instead on the themes of brotherhood, heroism, and courage.
No tears for Disney...
For some perspective, consider Disney's fellow "A+" winner Frozen, which not only set records with its own Thanksgiving launch, but also miraculously managed to win the top spot seven days ago after six full weekends in theaters. In fact, Frozen's most recent $15 million was the highest seventh-weekend total for any animated film, and the fourth-highest overall, trailing only Avatar, Titanic, and The Passion of the Christ.
As a result, Frozen has earned an incredible $712.3 million globally so far, or nearly five times Disney's $150 million production budget.
Meanwhile, Viacom (NASDAQ:VIAB) Paramount's holdover in The Wolf of Wall Street managed a distant third place this weekend at just $9 million, bringing its current worldwide gross to $97.1 million after three weeks. All things considered -- and keeping in mind Viacom merely has a distribution deal in place with Wolf financier Red Granite Pictures -- it appears The Wolf of Wall Street won't substantially exceed its lofty $100 million budget, although it could see a bump from star Leonardo DiCaprio's Golden Globes victory last night.
Speaking of under-performers, Lions Gate's (NYSE:LGF.A) The Legend of Hercules earned just $8.6 million in its debut, sharing fourth place with Sony (NYSE:SNE) Pictures' fifth week overachiever American Hustle. Like Viacom, however, Lions Gate muted its risk this time by simply acquiring distribution rights to Hercules from primary financier Millennium Films. The folks at Sony, on the other hand, should be pleased with the performance of American Hustle, the global gross from which has nearly tripled Sony's reasonable $40 million budget.
Finally, Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug managed to earn only $8 million in its fifth week stateside. However, note international audiences continued to prop up the epic sequel, accounting for 70% of all sales so far and bringing its worldwide total over $808 million.
Coming up next
Viacom hopes to steal some of Comcast's thunder next weekend with the 3,000-theater release of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The action-thriller should benefit both from a broader audience from its PG-13 rating, and a built-in fan base given the popularity of the character and producer Mace Neufeld's experience bringing Tom Clancy's books to life. Remember, as the most recent film in the Jack Ryan universe, The Sum of All Fears managed a solid $31.2 million weekend launch in 2002.
If one thing's for sure, however, it's that Lone Survivor is a huge hit. Unless Shadow Recruit can absolutely wow audiences this Friday, it'll have plenty of work to do breaking through the buzz surrounding this week's champion.
Fool contributor Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.