Jessica Chastain in "Mama"
Jessica Chastain in "Mama"

Three films starring Best Actress Oscar nominees nabbed the top positions, while three other films loaded with "A" list male actors struggled at the weekend box office. Jessica Chastain leads the way, with her horror film "Mama" grossing far above expectations, while her nominated film "Zero Dark Thirty" held on strong in its second wide week. Meantime, "Silver Linings Playbook," starring Chastain's Oscar rival Jennifer Lawrence, who went on Saturday Night Live, finally went wide to reasonable success.

The same can't be said for new openings "Broken City" or "The Last Stand," nor the holdover for "Gangster City," all mostly far more expensive conventional action/male audience oriented films, all of which look like potential significant losses. Martin Luther King holiday weekend traditionally sees a range of such films (which stand in contrast to the more recent holiday adult and family audience releases), but this year, that audience has gone elsewhere.

Overall business this weekend was average, with about $111 million for the three days for the Top Ten. That's down slightly from last weekend, while up from the same (but non-holiday) weekend last year, suggesting as have the first two this year that the new releases this year overall haven't performed up to par.

Just below the top ten were "Lincoln" at $5.4 million, now up to $160 million total. Twentieth Century Fox capitalized on "Life of Pi"'s major Oscar nomination haul to relaunch at 2,700 theaters for $3.4 million, and will hit $100 million Monday, adding to its much larger international total so far.

1. Mama (Universal/Entertainment One) NEW - Cinemascore: B-; Metacritic score: 58

$28,100,000 in 2,647 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $12,530; Cumulative: $28,100,000

For the third weekend in a row, the top new film (not counting the 2012 platform release "Zero Dark Thirty") is a low-budget unheralded younger audience-oriented film that overperformed expectations. This one isn't even American. Overseen by Guillermo del Toro, it is a mainly Spanish production (though mainly filmed in Canada, where it is being released by Entertainment One, not Universal).

But its pedigree seems clearly to have been enhanced by star Jessica Chastain. Timed to open just after her Oscar-nominated film, and coming after her string of higher-scale films recently, it totally eclipsed the performance of Jennifer Lawrence's "The House at the End of the Street" last September whose total gross was about what "Mama" will do by tomorrow. (Of course, "The Hunger Games" was far beyond any of these films).

With a $15 million budget, this is going to be a significant money maker for all involved, although less of course for distributor Universal, which did not produce. Although Del Toro sponsored this, it was directed by a novice feature director, Andres Muschietta, who had previously made a short with the same name and plot, which was then expanded into this film. Del Toro's involvement seems to have been enough to get a rising star like Chastain signed, and her presence provides a legitimacy to position this above other similar horror films.

What comes next: There is some risk in a tight possibly three-way Best Actress race for one competitor to appear in an on-paper less upscale film. But the strong showing for this at the same time as "Zero Dark Thirty" gives Chastain an added boost as a real draw, not unimportant in building successful momentum for an Oscar win.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (Sony) Week 5; Last weekend: #1

$17,600,000 (-28%) in 2,946 theaters (+9); PSA: $5,974; Cumulative: $55,945,000

The second Chastain-starrer had a strong hold this weekend, with a good Saturday and anticipated Sunday jumps from Friday showing signs of solid word of mouth now that this has reached a wide audience. The PSA impressively is ahead of "Silver Linings Playbook" despite one more week of wide release and playing in 400 more theaters, as well as easily outgrossing three new bigger-star films. It also now has gone slightly ahead of that film's total gross, something of a surprise considering initial expectations for both films.

Continuing the ongoing comparison to the very successful "Black Hawk Down" 11 years ago, which also went from late year platform release to later wide playoff, this held up much better. The second weekend of the Ridley Scott Somalia rescue mission film was down 40% from its first, although with the disadvantage of coming off a Martin Luther King Holiday. In the end: controversy sells.

What comes next: With this weekend in, $100 million now seems like a real possibility.

Jennifer Lawrence SNL

3. Silver Linings Playbook (Weinstein) Week 10 ; Last weekend: #10

$11,351,000 (+126%) in 2,523 theaters (+1,713); PSA: $4,499; Cumulative: $55,310,000

Going above 900 theaters for the first time since its release, this long-delayed expansion is working quite well, although at the cost of higher than normal weekly marketing expense leading up to this. Considering that most of the best theaters in this break have been playing the film for weeks or more, this is a quite reasonable performance.

Even with higher advertising costs (plus the expensive parallel Oscar campaign), the low $21 million cost will make this a successful film. What is still to be determined is how successful. The performance so far has shown that at whatever level of playoff, this holds far above average. If this continues for the wider break, this could still reach $100 million or better, particularly if as is possible Jennifer Lawrence wins Best Actress.

What comes next: Foreign openings have been uneven so far, performing at levels that don't suggest the usual higher grosses than at home. But with the domestic take enough to get this close to profit, whatever comes in make this along with "Django Unchained" a welcome ending to an uneven year of releases for Weinstein.