New York — In a flood of new releases, Aquaman easily swam past Mary Poppins Returns and Bumblebee to lead the busy pre-Christmas weekend with an estimated $67.4m debut, according to studio estimates on Sunday.
Without a Star Wars film on the December schedule for the first time in four years, a crowded slate of films sought to capitalise on the lucrative holiday period in theatres.
The DC Comics superhero film Aquaman, which cost Warner Bros. $200m to make, arrived already a juggernaut overseas, where it has grossed more than $400m in three weeks of release. Including advance previews, the Jason Momoa-led Aquaman reeled in $72.1m in U.S. and Canada theatres, bringing its global total to $482.8m.
Aquaman, directed by James Wan, has proven to be a stabilising Justice League spinoff for Warner Bros. following bumpier DC releases outside of Wonder Woman. The film garnered an A-minus Cinemascore from audiences.
For the studios, the weekend was as much about setting themselves up for Christmas to New Year's, when theatres are routinely packed through the week. With Christmas falling on a Tuesday, studio executives said the weekend was an unpredictable and distraction-filled one, competing with some of the busiest shopping days of the year.
"We really kick off starting on Tuesday," said Warner Bros. distribution chief Jeff Goldstein, who said the Aquaman performance came in just above the studio's $65m forecast. "With kids not really returning to school until 7 January , this aligns the stars for us in a really positive way."
Returns were more modest for Disney's Mary Poppins sequel and Paramount's Transformers spinoff, though each had reason to expect strong business through the holidays.
Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt and directed by Rob Marshall, debuted with $22.2m over the weekend and $31m since opening on Wednesday. That was on the low side of expectations for the musical, which cost $130m to make.
Mary Poppins Returns, which co-stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, will depend heavily on legs through the holiday season. On its side are good if not spectacular reviews (77 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), an A-minus CinemaScore from moviegoers and four Golden Globe nominations.
"It's a great weekend to start yourself off on a launch pad into the holiday period," said Cathleen Taff, head of distribution for Disney. "We're looking forward to great word of mouth building over the next few weeks. And we're looking forward to a long run."
Poppins still narrowly edged Bumblebee, which opened with $21m. That, too, is a soft beginning for a film that cost about $135m to make after tax credits. It's also far off the pace of the Transformers films, the last of which (Transformers: The Last Knight) debuted with $44.7m in summer 2017.
But Bumblebee, a Transformers prequel directed by Travis Knight and starring Hailee Steinfeld, has something the Michael Bay films never had: Good reviews. Bumblebee was the weekend's most acclaimed new wide release with a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences also gave it an A-minus CinemaScore.
"The pre-Christmas preoccupation for moviegoers affected everyone. All movies were impacted slightly by that," said Kyle Davies, head of distribution for Paramount. "It doesn't concern me. We played really well with great reactions. The game plan has always been that we're now starting that play period where people go multiple times over the next few weeks, and that's the whole point."
"To me, this weekend was a dress rehearsal for the big push that starts Christmas Day," added Davies.
Also in the mix is Sony's well-reviewed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which slid to fourth in its second week with $16.7m in ticket sales. The film also made one of the best debuts for an animated release in China where it was no. 1, grossing $26.1m over the weekend.
Clint Eastwood's The Mule added $9.3m in its sophomore frame, bringing its two-week total to $35m. Bradley Cooper, who co-stars in The Mule, could also celebrate his A Star Is Born crossing $200m domestically.
Largely overlooked in the onslaught at theatres was STXfilms' Second Act, starring Jennifer Lopez. The romantic comedy debuted with an estimated $6.5m in 2 607 locations, drawing an audience that was 70 percent female.
But the weekend's real flop was Welcome to Marwen, the Robert Zemeckis-directed fantastical drama starring Steve Carell as an imaginative man whose scale model town helps him rehabilitate after a trauma. The film, which cost at least $40m to make, earned just $2.3m in 1 900 theatres. It's the second straight flop for Universal (which teamed with DreamWorks for Marwen) following Mortal Engines. That $100m film debuted last weekend with $7.5m film in ticket sales.
Yet the weekend managed to nearly equal the box office of the same weekend last year when The Last Jedi was in its second week of release and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opened. Ticket sales for the Star Wars-less weekend were down a mere 2.1 percent, according to Comscore.
Year to date, the domestic box office is up 7.5 percent and was expected to just eke past 2016's record $11.38bn sometime late on Sunday or early on Monday, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.
"The collective and cumulative strength of these newcomers, particularly Aquaman, and a huge slate of holdovers gave us a stronger weekend than anyone imagined," Dergarabedian said. "A superhero movie in December can make up for not having a Star Wars movie in December."