Hollywood kicked off the new year on a positive note, with three films vying closely for the weekend box-office title that nevertheless remained with "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" for the third straight week.
Peter Jackson's Middle-earth finale took in $21.9 million for Warner Bros. in North American theaters, according to studio estimates Sunday, narrowly edging out the Disney musical "Into the Woods" ($19.1 million) and Angelina Jolie's World War II tale "Unbroken" ($18.4 million) from Universal.
The weekend's lone new wide-release, the Relativity Media horror sequel "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death," landed in fourth place with $15.1 million.
The first weekend of 2015 gave Hollywood the chance to begin turning the page on a rough 2014 in which box-office revenue slid 5 percent and attendance dropped to its lowest level in nearly 20 years. With a closely contested weekend at the multiplexes, overall business was strong, up 5.5 percent from the same weekend last year, according to box-office firm Rentrak.
In its second week of limited release, Sony Pictures' "The Interview" earned an estimated $1.1 million theatrically.
In its first four days of online streaming and sale, the comedy made $15 million, Sony said last week. Since then, the film has expanded to video-on-demand via cable operators and on more digital platforms like Apple's iTunes. The film was met with a lot of controversy prior to its release.
Several Oscar contenders began to attract larger numbers of moviegoers, as Hollywood's awards season picks up stream. The Golden Globes are Sunday, Jan. 11.
Playing at 754 theaters, "The Imitation Game," the Weinstein Co.'s code-breaker thriller about World War II hero Alan Turing took in $8.1 million in its sixth week. (By comparison, "The Hobbit" played at more than 3,800 theaters.) The Reese Witherspoon drama "Wild" also added $4.5 million for a five-week $25.8 million total for Fox Searchlight.
Opening in limited release at four locations, J.C. Chandor's New York thriller "A Most Violent Year" debuted with a theater average of $47,000. The acclaimed A24 release, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, will soon expand.
Set in New York City in 1981, the film's stars say it has the look and feel of a gangster movie but it's a lot more than that."It's just not the cliché you expect it to be," Isaac said. "It's actually a reaction to that kind of thing."
Demand, though, was strongest for "American Sniper," Clint Eastwood's drama about Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). In its second week playing in just four theaters, "American Sniper" attracted a remarkable $160,000 per-screen-average. The film opens wide on Jan. 16.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Rentrak. Where available, the latest international numbers are also included.