'Lone Survivor'
'Lone Survivor'

Universal bounced back from its second big-budget dud of 2013, "47 Ronin," with two lower-budget 2014 releases that should pass the $100 million domestic mark. "Ride Along" and holdover "Lone Survivor" grabbed the top two weekend spots, stealing the thunder from the spate of year-end Oscar contenders hoping to sustain their runs. Of that bunch only "American Hustle" (Sony) got a big boost, and along with Christmas opener "The Wolf of Wall Street," seems likely to sustain substantially longer runs.

Weinstein's "August: Osage County," which more than doubled its theater count this week to yield a gross only slightly better than last weekend, is the only other awards entry with much potential at this point among the live-action nominees. "Her" held well but still hasn't cracked the Top 10.

The three-day weekend total--the Monday holiday will boost grosses--is significantly up from last year, when only "Mama" opened big. More impressively, the Top 10 total is up a whopping $40 million from the last Martin Luther King holiday weekend, as 2014 continues to show signs of surpassing 2013's weak start, when grosses were down by 12% by the end of April.

A wide array of Oscar nominees either held onto screens or attempted relaunches to piggy-back off the new attention from Oscar nominations, with "Gravity" (Warner Bros.) on the most screens (944) faring the best at #16 but still grossing under $2 million. The others, including "12 Years a Slave," "Nebraska," "Philomena" and "Dallas Buyers Club" will be discussed in more detail in Arthouse Audit.

1. Ride Along (Universal) NEW - Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 41

$41,200,000 in 2,663 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $15,485; Cumulative: $41,237,000

This modestly-budgeted comedy ($25 million) boasts the biggest (inflation unadjusted) January three-day weekend gross on record (besting 2008's "Cloverfield" by a close margin, if not in actual tickets sold). While largely off the media radar, the targeted marketing clearly hit the intended core African-American audience and beyond (audience surveys show 50% non-black, with a large Latino appeal). Let's call it: Kevin Hart is a star. His recent concert film success arrived after years of supporting work in films like  the "Scary Movie" series, "Little Fockers," "40 Year Old Virgin" and the recent "Grudge Match." And co-star and co-producer  Ice Cube stages a lead-role comeback amid a long-term career that goes back to the early 1990s.

Director Tim Story has a track record going back to Ice Cube-starrer "Barbershop" followed by two "Fantastic Four" films and the recent $91 million "Think Like a Man." The "Ride Along" plot--about a security guard pursuing a rogue cop's sister -- shares elements of another January sleeper, Kevin James' "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." "Ride Along" reminds that an appealing comedy with popular names can over-perform and surprise the industry. And on an award season weekend this comedy has outgrossed in three days what "12 Years a Slave" has taken in over three months.

What comes next: Kevin Hart is now a top star in a film that could spawn a franchise. And Universal has a second early-year wide release likely to hit $100 million.

2. Lone Survivor (Universal) Week 4; Last weekend #1

$23,200,000 (-39%) in 2,989 theaters (+114); PSA: $7,775; Cumulative: $78,400,000

Falling in its second wide weekend more than last year's "Zero Dark Thirty" (which started from a lower level and had a boost from Oscar nominations), this is still a strong performance for Peter Berg's Afghanistan-set true life drama with Mark Wahlberg. With a gross already nearly double its production cost, this is approaching major hit level and looks to be the first wide release of 2014 to hit $100 million by next weekend.