By Brent Lang
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - It was a squeaker, but Universal's "Split" has edged past Paramount's "Rings" to narrowly claim victory at the domestic box office. The low-budget thriller retained its first place position for the third consecutive weekend, earning $14.6 million. So far, "Split," the story of a man with multiple personalities, has made $98.7 million stateside, while costing just $9 million, making it very profitable indeed. The film stars James McAvoy, was directed by "The Sixth Sense's" M. Night Shyamalan, and produced by Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions, the maker of "Sinister" and "Paranormal Activity."
"It's a darn good movie," said Nick Carpou, Universal's domestic distribution chief. "It's very satisfying for audiences. People seek out quality."
It was a quiet weekend for Hollywood. After all, most of America's attention has shifted away from the multiplexes to the coming battle between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. The two teams will meet at Super Bowl LI, and the high-profile matchup should ensure that the weekend box office closes on a muted note.
"Rings," an attempt to revive a long-dormant horror franchise, earned $13 million. The first "Ring" movie opened to $15 million in 2002 on its way to a $129.1 million domestic gross, while its followup, 2005's "The Ring Two," kicked off to $35.1 million, ending its stateside run with $76.2 million. "Rings" was delayed multiple times, and was originally intended to hit theaters in 2015. It cost $25 million to produce and, like its predecessors, focuses on a videotape that kills those who watch it. Overseas, "Rings" took in $15.2 million from 35 international markets, including Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. Paramount marketing and distribution chief Megan Colligan said she was pleased by the reception the film received here and abroad.
"It's solid," she said. "Internationally we did incredibly well and it's nice to have over-performed in certain markets like Brazil." As for whether or not "Rings" will lead to more sequels, Colligan offered, "time will tell."
Paramount has gone through a bruising period at the box office, enduring a stream of painful flops such as "Allied," "Ben-Hur," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows." The studio has scored with the Oscar-nominated "Fences" and "Arrival," but is trying to exhibit greater consistency on the big screen. That's seen as critical for the longterm survival of studio chief Brad Grey. He managed to make it through the ouster of Philippe Dauman, the head of Paramount's parent company Viacom and a one-time ally, but Grey must prove that he has the vision needed to restore the studio's luster.
The weekend's other new wide-release, STX Entertainment's "The Space Between Us," bombed, eking out $3.8 million. That's far less than the $8 million to $10 million that the studio projected the film would earn in its debut. The science-fiction romance was picked up from Relativity Media after that company fell into bankruptcy. It centers on an intra-planetary relationship that forms between a young man who lives on Mars (Asa Butterfield) and a girl from Earth (Britt Robertson) who captures his heart. STX Entertainment is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, having launched in 2014 with backing from the likes of the venture capital firm TPG and the private equity player Hony Capital. The studio has struggled at times, scoring with "Bad Moms" and "The Gift," but falling flat with "Free State of Jones," "Hardcore Henry," and "The Edge of Seventeen." "The Space Between Us" cost $30 million to produce -- STX says it limited its financial exposure with foreign pre-sales, tax credits, and by taking on outside investors.
"While we were hoping for more, we are proud of the film and the way we managed it creatively and financially," a spokesman for STX said in a statement to Variety.
"A Dog's Purpose," a family film from Universal, Amblin Entertainment, and Walden Media, nabbed third place, grossing $10.8 million to push its domestic total to $32.9 million. The film was nearly derailed after video surfaced showing a skittish German Shepherd being forced by members of the crew into rushing water. Universal later claimed that the video was heavily edited. Despite the controversy, "A Dog's Purpose" has performed well at the box office.
Fox's "Hidden Figures" took fourth place, continuing its torrid run at the box office. The drama about African-American NASA employees earned $10.1 million, bringing its domestic earnings to a sizable $119.4 million. "Hidden Figures" is also factoring into the Oscar race, having recently earned a best picture nomination.
"La La Land," the musical expected to dominate this year's Academy Awards, rounded out the top five, adding $7.4 million to push its domestic results to more than $118 million. The film picked up another honor this weekend, as Damien Chazelle, the 32-year-old wunderkind who wrote and directed "La La Land," won the Director's Guild Award.
In limited release, "The Comedian," a critically maligned dramedy with Robert De Niro, struggled to make much of an impression, grossing $1.1 million on 848 screens. Sony Pictures Classics is distributing the film.
Magnolia's "I Am Not Your Negro" fared better, grossing $709,500 on 43 screens. The look at essayist and novelist James Baldwin is competing for an Oscar in the best documentary category.
Overall ticket sales topped out at $100 million, a 4.7% jump from the year-ago period when "Kung Fu Panda 3" topped charts. The domestic box office is trailing 2016's results, but analysts believe that those fortunes will be reversed when "Fifty Shades Darker," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Logan" debut in the coming weeks.
"We're not exactly off to a rousing start, but I still think this year will be a record breaker," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. "It's just a late bloomer."