'End of Watch'
'End of Watch'

The order for the top three is uncertain until Sunday actuals are reported Monday, with an unusual tie as of now for #1. Among those two films - "House at the End of the Street" and "End of Watch" - the latter, in fewer theaters, had the higher per screen average. For their modest level of expense and ability to grow audiences in upcoming weeks, both "End of Watch" and "Trouble With the Curve" show promise.

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.

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

Jennifer Lawrence, House at the End of the St

$13,000,000 in 3,083 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $4,217; Cumulative: $13,000,000

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.

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.

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

$13,000,000 in 2,730 theaters; PSA: $4,762; Cumulative: $13,000,000

Likely heading to #1 for the weekend, 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.

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

$12,720,000 in 3,212 theaters; PSA: $3,960; Cumulative: $12,720,000

These are not great grosses for this Clint Eastwood/Amy Adams baseball story. Opening wider than any Clint Eastwood starring film ever, and unlike the previous two ("Gran Torino," "Million Dollar Baby"), opening wide from the start, the PSA is going to fall below at least five.

Some caveats: Eastwood's audience is older, not as inclined to rush out opening weekend, so if this shows strong word-of-mouth, its legs and length of run could be better than its other competitors. The reviews were below most Eastwood films (this one was not directed by him), so that may have cut into the initial gross. The critic-influenced audience may have overlapped with those less inclined to see this after his recent political brouhaha.