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Weekend box office: 'Spectre' on top as 'By the Sea' treads water

James Bond and Charlie Brown were the champions of the box office again this past weekend. What's behind the underwhelming performance of films like 'Sea' and the drama 'The 33'?

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    'Spectre' stars Daniel Craig.
    Jonathan Olley/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions/AP
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It’s not easy to take down James Bond. 

The new Bond movie “Spectre” came in first at the box office this weekend, which was its second in theaters. The new animated movie “The Peanuts Movie,” which was also a holdover from last weekend, placed second. “Spectre” took in more than $35 million, while “Peanuts” grossed more than $24 million.

New movies didn’t fare overly well at the box office. The new film that did the best was the family holiday drama “Love the Coopers,” but the movie only took in a bit more than $8 million over the weekend, placing third but coming in far behind “Peanuts” at second place. 

The movie “The 33,” which was based on the true story of Chilean miners who were rescued in 2010, came in fifth, behind “The Martian.” “33” grossed more than $5 million.

Meanwhile, the drama “By the Sea,” which was directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt and starred her and Brad Pitt, did not set sail auspiciously. It debuted in only 10 theaters and made less than $1 million.

What made movies like “Coopers,” “33,” and “Sea” underperform? Poor reviews are likely one culprit. All of them received negative notices from critics, so even if the star-studded casts of “Coopers” or “Sea” or the inspiring real-life basis of “33” attracted moviegoers originally, they may have decided against going after hearing from reviewers.

In addition, this fall’s box office may provide a cautionary tale for how movie studios should release smaller projects. The acclaimed drama “Spotlight,” which tells the true story of the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, has been in limited release. It’s slowly expanding its locations and so industry watchers are more impressed with its box office performance, with Entertainment Weekly writer Devan Coggan calling the movie’s results so far “solid” and Forbes writer Scott Mendelson finding its gross to be a “terrific” result. 

By contrast, some recent smaller movies may have opened wide or expanded too quickly. Some were surprised by the lackluster box office performance of the movie “Steve Jobs,” which stars Michael Fassbender as the tech giant. “Jobs” director Danny Boyle said in an interview that he thinks the film should have opened slowly, expanding to more locations gradually, as good word-of-mouth increased. This is the strategy “Spotlight” is following. “It’s very disappointing that when it was released wide across America it didn’t really work," he said. So it’s retreated back now to the main cities. It’s very easy in hindsight [to speculate], but I think it’s probably that we released it too wide too soon.”

However, the crucial ingredient for that strategy is good reviews. Even if a movie like “33,” “Sea,” or a previous underperformer like “Burnt” had opened more slowly, they all still got negative reviews. Opening in fewer locations initially would probably not have helped the films.

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