Jessica Chastain stars in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Jonathan Olley / Columbia…)
The hunt for Osama bin Laden last year proved a bigger draw for this past weekend's moviegoers than a battle against organized crime 70 years ago.
The thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" had a decisive victory at the box office, grossing $24 million in the United States and Canada, according to an estimate from distributor Sony Pictures.
Despite a bigger budget and more famous stars, such as Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, "Gangster Squad" opened to a disappointing $16.7 million.
The low-budget horror spoof "A Haunted House," starring Marlon Wayans, had a strong start, meanwhile, launching with $18.8 million.
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Going into the weekend, pre-release surveys suggested all three movies playing across the country for the first time would have very close openings of about $20 million.
"Zero Dark Thirty," which was financed by producer Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures for about $45 million, was widely covered in the media Thursday, though not for reasons its backers had hoped. Despite landing an Academy Award nomination for best picture as expected, director Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed in her category.
The film picked up one Golden Globe on Sunday night for star Jessica Chastain.
That came on top of several weeks of controversy over accusations by activists and politicians, including prominent U.S. senators, that it misrepresented the role of torture in tracking down Bin Laden.
Nonetheless, Sony's strategy of playing "Zero Dark Thirty" in limited release for the last three weeks and then expanding nationwide the day after Oscar nominations appears to have paid off. Its solid start brings the movie's total gross to $29.5 million.
"The publicity has provoked a discussion, and that's always healthy," said Sony distribution President Rory Bruer. "I think there is incredible interest in this story and knowing more about it."
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Audiences liked the thriller starring Jessica Chastain, giving it an average grade of A-minus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Good word of mouth could keep "Zero Dark Thirty" playing strongly for several weeks, particularly among adults who don't always rush out to see films on opening weekend. Of attendees this past weekend, 62% were over 30.
Warner Bros. had hoped "Gangster Squad," based on true events in Los Angeles, would also open to more than $20 million. But unlike the other two pictures, ticket sales declined from Friday to Saturday, a bad sign for audience buzz that came on top of weak reviews.
Nonetheless, with a CinemaScore of B-plus and an audience evenly distributed between men and women, the studio is hopeful that grosses will decline only modestly over the upcoming Martin Luther King Day weekend, said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution.
Warner and partner Village Roadshow Pictures paid a little more than $60 million to make "Gangster Squad."
The movie had a good start in the United Kingdom over the weekend, opening to $9.1 million.
But the box office in that country was ruled by "Les Misérables," which kicked off its British run with a strong $13.4 million. The worldwide total for Universal Pictures' musical adaptation is now an impressive $234.3 million.
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"A Haunted House," by contrast, cost only about $2.5 million to produce, making its opening a big win. The spoof was financed by IM Global's genre label Octane Pictures and released by Open Road Films.
Wayans is known to horror parody fans for his role in the similar "Scary Movie 2" in 2001. With several prominent black costars, including Cedric the Entertainer and J.B. Smoove, the movie drew an audience that was 48% African American. Surprisingly, 58% of attendees were women.
"Marlon Wayans was a machine — a great promoter and ambassador for the movie," said Open Road marketing President Jason Cassidy.
Despite its B-minus CinemaScore, the lowest for any the three new films, grosses for "Haunted House" rose 10% from Friday to Saturday, stronger than for "Zero" or "Gangster" and a sign of positive word of mouth.
Thursday's Oscar nominations were good to several movies. "Lincoln," the most honored with 12 nominations, saw its grosses rise 17% from the previous weekend to $6.3 million. Typically, ticket sales for an individual movie decline each week.
The total domestic gross for the historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg is now a spectacular $152.6 million.
The Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence comedy "Silver Linings Playbook," which received eight nominations, experienced a 38% jump to $5 million. Next weekend, distributor Weinstein Co. will expand the movie to play nationwide for the first time.
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