Liam Neeson, left, stars in "The Grey," about a group of oil drillers… (Kimberly French, Open Road…)
Liam Neeson's new action-adventure thriller looks to have the edge on what is likely to be a crowded movie weekend without a breakout hit.
"The Grey,"starring Neeson, probably will take in $12 million to $14 million, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. That should be good enough to beat two other new offerings, crime comedy "One for the Money,"starring Katherine Heigl, and thriller "Man on a Ledge," headlined by Sam Worthington. Both are expected to have soft openings of less than $10 million.
In a twist, the latter two movies are being released by Lionsgate and its newly acquired subsidiary, Summit Entertainment, respectively. The films had scheduled release dates well before Lionsgate bought Summit two weeks ago, and they couldn't be moved, even though it means the independent studio is essentially competing against itself.
This weekend will also see several pictures that racked up multiple Oscar nominations expanding to more theaters in search of a box-office bounce. They include"The Artist,""The Descendants,""Hugo,""The Iron Lady"and"Albert Nobbs."
Neeson has a history of strongly performing thrillers released in the winter, including last year's"Unknown,"which debuted with $21.9 million, and 2009's "Taken," which opened to $24.7 million.
Despite largely positive reviews, "The Grey," about a group of oil drillers being hunted by wolves in Alaska, does not appear to be as enticing to audiences. However, distributor Open Road Films paid only about $5 million to acquire the picture last summer, meaning it could still be profitable if it opens in line with expectations.
"The Grey" is the second release by Open Road, a joint venture formed last year by theater chains AMC Entertainment and Regal Cinemas to take advantage of the fact that Hollywood studios are releasing fewer pictures. Their first picture was"Killer Elite,"released in September.
Summit has aggressively advertised "Man on a Ledge," about an escaped criminal trying to prove his innocence, but has had even less luck exciting audiences. The poorly reviewed picture, which cost about $42 million to make, is competing for the same adult crowd that is likely to go to the other two pictures.
However, the audience for "The Grey" is expected to be mostly male, while those interested in "Man on a Ledge" are more evenly split between genders.
"One for the Money," meanwhile, is expected to draw a primarily female crowd familiar with the bestselling novel by Janet Evanovich on which it is based. Lionsgate is distributing it for Lakeshore Entertainment, which produced the picture.
In a bid to boost admissions, "Man on a Ledge" and "One for the Money" have run discount ticket promotions on the coupon websites Groupon and Living Social, respectively. Those marketing efforts could add a small amount to the films' box-office totals, but will only be worth it if they generate good word of mouth that brings in other moviegoers willing to pay full price.
Holdover films"Underworld: Awakening"and"Red Tails"could also compete for the top few spots at the box office after opening last weekend to $25.3 million and $18.8 million, respectively.
Among the Oscar-nominated pictures, "The Descendants," starring George Clooney, is making the biggest leap, going from 560 theaters last weekend to nearly 2,000. If audience interest is strong, it could end the weekend not far under $10 million, adding to its to-date total of $51.7 million.
"The Artist," "Hugo," "Albert Nobbs" and "The Iron Lady" will each be at fewer than 1,300 locations, meaning they're still playing in only a portion of the nation's markets.