'End of Watch'
'End of Watch'

After a rare tie for #1 in the Sunday box office estimates, the gritty acclaimed police drama "End of Watch" emerged as the clear winner, easily outpacing the Jennifer Lawrence horror film "House at the End of the Street," which barely edged out "Trouble With the Curve" for second.

But positive studio balance sheets won't make theater owners happy when they see a continuation of several weeks of box office slump that shows signs of getting worse, not better. There's no getting around it: business continues to be terrible. Although the top ten grossed 13% above last week's mediocre numbers, by this point most year's numbers are recovering with new, stronger releases upgrading performance. But compared to a year ago, grosses are down by a disastrous 29%! Last year, three films grossed over $19 milliion or more for the weekend, including two new ones.. This year, the best was only around $13 million.

(The top three grosses listed below are the actual Monday final figures, not the estimates. The rest remain the estimates. Please note though that in the actuals, "ParaNorman" ended up 9th, "Lawless" 10th, and "The Bourne Legacy" dropped to 11th).

1. End of Watch (Open Road) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic score: 70

$13,152,683 in 2,730 theaters; PSA: $4,818; Cumulative: $13,152,683

Winning the battle for #1, in a bleak month this film is cause for excitement. Opening wide right after its Toronto Film Festival premiere, its genre (policier) and stars (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) didn't immediately suggest breakout sucess. Yet this looks like it might not only win the weekend but be set up for a solid lengthy and profitable run.

This is another strong opening for Open Road, a distribution venture created by top exhibitors Regal and AMC to add product (mainly) to fringe periods in the release schedule. Open Road acquired indie-financed "End of Watch" for $2 million plus a guaranteed wide release spend abive $20 million (in-theater support cuts down costs).

Getting a career boost is director David Ayer, who moved from strong scripting credits ("The Fast and the Furious," "Training Day," "SWAT") to directing ("Harsh Times," "Street Kings,"). Not only is this opening above expectations (studios passed on the film before Open Road bought it), the film also scored well with critics, who raved about the performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena.

Since "Brokeback Mountain," other than the big budget "Prince of Persia" ($350 million worldwide), Gyllenhaal's films have grossed between $9 and $54 million in the US/Canada. But all of these cost considerably more than "End of Watch" and reinforced a sense that he had failed to establish himself as an A-lister. This could be a step towards elevating him once again.

What it means: In a period when studios are getting increasingly wary of "risky" non-horror or family-oriented lower-budget dramas, "End of Road" shows that a smart, well-reviewed film can still find a theatrical audience and make profits. And for Open Road, after some success (particularly the equally surprising "The Grey"), their appeal to producers will just get stronger.

2. House at the End of the Street (Relativity) NEW - Cinemascore: B; Metacritic score: 37

$12,287,234 in 3,083 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $3,985; Cumulative: $12,287,234

For the fourth straight Friday, a horror film was at the top of grosses. Unlike "The Possession" or "Resident Evil: Retribution," this was a star-driven success. Unlike the previous three weeks, it couldn't sustain that position.

Jennifer Lawrence shot this film before getting her best actress nomination for "Winter's Bone" or getting cast in "Hunger Games." Relativity paid between $2-3 million for US rights to the $10-million independent production. Marketing costs will be several times that, so any quick gross playoff and brief run would make this a marginal performer despite the decent first day.

What it means: It made sense to delay the film until after "The Hunger Games" made Lawrence a big draw. But coming out as the third horror wide release this month likely tempered interest, more so when the main attraction was the star more than any distinctive story or series hook.

3. Trouble With the Curve (Warner Brothers) NEW - Cinemascore: B+; Metacritic score: 58

$12,162,040 in 3,212 theaters; PSA: $3,786; Cumulative: $12,162,040