‘Hunger Games’ Drowns ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ at Box Office

Ron Howard’s pricey epic was edged by “Mockingjay 2” as fans line up for “The Force Awakens”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” rallied to edge past Ron Howard‘s “In the Heart of the Sea,” to claim its fourth straight win at the box office with a muted $11.3 million this weekend. That’s probably because moviegoers’ hearts and minds were on a galaxy far, far away and next Friday.

That’s when “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” arrives in theaters, with early preview shows Thursday night. The most ardent fans were already lining up outside theaters for the first chapter in George Lucas‘ iconic movie franchise in more than a decade. Others were watching previous “Star Wars” films in record numbers, and L.A. traffic was already piling up ahead of Monday night’s premiere, which will take up several blocks of Hollywood boulevard.

That made this weekend’s box office almost an afterthought, and the numbers showed it. The combined total of the top five films — “Creed,” “The Good Dinosaur” and “Krampus” followed the leaders — was just over $50 million. That’s roughly the same total that advance ticket sales for “The Force Awakens” reached more than a month ago.

“This is the calm before the storm,” said Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian, referring to Disney’s hugely-anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Fox’s animated family favorite “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip” and Universal’s comedy “Sisters” starring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey also roll out Friday.

Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games” finale starring Jennifer Lawrence lifted its domestic total to $245 million in the process of overtaking “In the Heart of the Sea,” the nautical tale starring Chris Hemsworth that was second for the weekend with roughly $11 million after winning Friday. Distributor Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow had hoped for better numbers from the story of the whaling ship that inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick,” given its $100 million production budget.

Instead, it will be the third big-budget misfire this year for the studio. The perennial powerhouse has been struggling following disappointing performances for the fairy tale reboot “Pan” and the space opera “Jupiter Ascending.” Last year at this time, Warner Bros. was rolling out the final chapter in its blockbuster franchise “The Hobbit.”  Peter Jackson epics have dominated the pre-holiday most of the past decade, but this year belongs to Disney and Lucasfilm’s reboot of the classic sci-fi series.

“‘Star Wars’ is definitely in the culture, and is going to be huge for the whole industry,” Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Jeff Goldstein told TheWrap, “We would have liked to have seen a better opening this weekend, but we think Ron Howard did a great job on ‘Heart of the Sea’ and we’re hoping to see it have a solid run through the holidays. Maybe not next weekend, but after that,” he said.

The weak debut of the “In the Heart of the Sea” will be the worst opening ever of a film in more than 3,000 theaters for director Howard, who won the 1991 Best Director Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind.”

Despite its pedigree and price, “In the Heart of the Sea” was not foreseen as a blockbuster by Warner Bros., which shifted the release date from March to this weekend in January. That might have served as a launch pad for an awards run, but that buzz hasn’t materialized and now the studio will hope that it can play steadily and find its audience as counter-programming over the next weeks at home and abroad.

Moviegoers in 3,108 theaters gave it “B+” CinemaScore and that won’t hurt, but so-so reviews –it’s at 44 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes — won’t help.

Bucking the down trend was Paramount’s Oscar hopeful “The Big Short.” The dark comedy about the global financial crisis made a strong limited debut after taking in $72,000 from eight theaters for the three days.

That’s a roughly $90,000 per-theater average for the film, which was directed and co-written by Adam McKay and nominated for Best Comedy Picture by the Golden Globes earlier this week. The film starring Brad Pitt, Steve CarellChristian Bale and Ryan Gosling also was named Best Ensemble by the National Board of Review and received a Screen Actors Guild nomination this week.