Weekend Box Office (January 27 - 29, 2012)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Audiences turned out for Liam Neeson's latest thriller The Grey which topped a busy frame that saw three new action entries attack a North American box office that already had plenty of action offerings. Marking the first number one debut for rookie distributor Open Road, the R-rated Alaskan survival pic bowed to $19.7M from 3,185 theaters for a solid $6,174 average, according to final studio figures. Following Taken and Unknown, Neeson has emerged as a more cerebral action hero and has now anchored three number one hits over the past three years which is more than most other Hollywood stars like Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Matt Damon, or Denzel Washington.

Reviews were favorable for The Grey but audiences were not too thrilled with the outcome as the wolf attack flick earned a disappointing B- grade from CinemaScore. After the shocking $24.7M debut of Taken over Super Bowl weekend in 2009 and the brawny $21.9M debut of Unknown over last year's Presidents Day holiday frame, it made sense that Neeson was far and away the top commercial selling point for the $25M production which boasted no other major stars. Coming up on his 60th birthday, the busy Irish actor could possibly star in a whopping five number one hits this year thanks to the February 10 re-release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the March 30 bow of Wrath of the Titans, the May 18 launch of Battleship, and the July 20 release of The Dark Knight Rises.

Despite all the action competition, last week's box office champ Underworld: Awakening held up incredibly well dropping 51% to $12.4M for the lowest sophomore decline in the history of the four-film franchise. The first three pics each fell by 55-65% after their debuts and generally fourth chapters in a sci-fi or horror series draw such a big part of the built-in audience upfront that they crumble in the second frame. Sony has taken in $45M after ten days with its Kate Beckinsale vehicle and can expect a final take in the $65-70M range helped in part by 3D surcharges.

Katherine Heigl landed in third place with a respectable debut for her latest film One for the Money which bowed to $11.5M from 2,737 sites for a decent $4,207 average. Lionsgate refrained from screening the PG-13 action-comedy for critics but reviews that eventually came out were brutal making it the front-runner for next year's Razzie Awards at this early stage in the race. Heigl's films routinely open in double digit millions despite horrible reviews and lame plots although this one lacked a notable male lead. Money, which finds the actress playing a bail bondswoman hunting down an old flame, skewed heavily towards women with studio research showing that the audience was 79% female and 74% over 25. With a lackluster B- CinemaScore, the road ahead looks grim.

The fighter pilot actioner Red Tails dropped 45% from its impressive debut and took fourth place with $10.4M. Fox's release of the George Lucas production has collected $33.8M in ten days and a final tally of $55-60M seems likely which is more than most expected.

Scoring the worst opening of the frame's three new releases, but the best audience feedback, was Summit's Man on a Ledge with $8M. The PG-13 film averaged a weak $2,669 per theater from 2,998 locations and just couldn't compete with the wide range of other action offerings in the marketplace. Reviews were dull and lead actor Sam Worthington has never anchored an action hit outside of pre-existing brands like Clash of the Titans or James Cameron. But Ledge did have broad appeal with men and women represented equally and 56% of the crowd being under 25. The CinemaScore grade was a decent B+ and the Friday-to-Saturday increase was 44% - both tops among the freshmen.

A pair of Oscar nominees for Best Picture followed, each exploiting the nominations in a different way. The Tom Hanks-Sandra Bullock drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close dipped only 31% to $7M in its second weekend of wide release to raise the cume to $20.9M. Warner Bros. has used a Million Dollar Baby-style strategy with this 9/11 pic by opening in just a small number of theaters in late December in order to qualify and then waiting until nomination time to go nationwide letting others duke it out during awards season in hopes that it will be a fresh new option for voters and mainstream audiences alike. The plan worked for Baby which triumphed over the presumed front-runner The Aviator that year. But it may not be repeat this time as Loud only scored one other Academy Award nomination and was left out of the Director race. Still, the Oscar heat could help the film's legs at the box office over the next few weeks as mature audiences catch up on Academy-endorsed films.

George Clooney's The Descendants expanded on Friday more than tripling its run on the heels of earning five Oscar nods and jumped back into the top ten at number eight with $6.4M. Now getting a second life in its 11th week of release, the Fox Searchlight film boosted its theater count by 257% from 560 locations to 2,001 and watched its weekend gross jump 170% although its average fell by 24%. The Alexander Payne-directed pic has banked $58.7M to date and could rake in a lot more thanks to the Oscar heat and the fact that it has some starpower and mainstream appeal.

Former number one Contraband squeezed in between in seventh place with $6.7M, down 44%, giving Universal $56.6M to date for the Mark Wahlberg actioner. Disney's 3D makeover of Beauty and the Beast dropped 40% to $5.3M for $41.1M so far. The animated film's lifetime gross including the 1991 original release plus the 2002 special edition is now $212.5M. Rounding out the top ten was Steven Soderbergh's action thriller Haywire which fell a sharp 53% in its second weekend to $4M putting the Relativity title at $15.3M in ten days.

Oscar nominees all hustled this past week to turn nominations into extra box office. Distributors worked hard to cash in as Academy endorsements and media hype can translate into broader moviegoer interest, especially for smaller films that need more convincing. But with this game comes added expenditures as more prints are needed and additional advertising is purchased so the net "Oscar bump" is nearly impossible to calculate.

The undisputed front-runner The Artist expanded from 662 to 897 theaters and saw its weekend take rise 40% to $3.3M giving The Weinstein Co. a total of $16.7M with plenty more to come. Its average of $3,696 was not too impressive but it did inch up 3% from last weekend. A near-impossible sell in the U.S. market, The Artist is now fully in the spotlight and positioned to pull in audiences that would not have purchased tickets before. There will still be resistance to the silent 1930s-set French-produced film from the broader mainstream crowd so the cume will only rise so high. But with numerous wins including the top film prizes from both the PGA and DGA, the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Comedy or Musical, Critics Choice awards for Picture and Director, plus ten Academy Award nominations, The Artist is clearly the film to beat and can extend its box office fortunes past Feb 26 if it pulls off a big victory.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which led all films with 11 Oscar nods, enjoyed a similar expansion from 650 to 965 sites and grossed $2.5M. Its boost of 168% was much greater as the 3D film is more accessible and includes characters speaking to each other. Paramount's total is $58.9M. The incredibly expensive production did not fare too well during its initial run but now has a chance add to its cume by reaching those who missed it the first time around. Fellow Best Picture contender War Horse did not benefit much as the Spielberg pic fell 36% to $2M raising the sum to $75.6M. The war drama lost nearly 700 screens but also saw its average drop too.

Following its qualifying run, Glenn Close's Albert Nobbs opened in limited release after nabbing three Oscar nominations and grossed $696,166 from 245 theaters for a sluggish $2,841 average. The overall cume is $746,407 for Roadside Attractions and reviews have been mixed for the film but solid for Close's performance as a woman playing a man.

Elsewhere below the top ten, Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol achieved a pair of notable milestones this weekend. The domestic haul broke the $200M mark with $202.6M thus far while the international run continued to shine raising the overseas tally to $369M. The action hit is now the top-grossing installment of the popular franchise with a global gross of $571.6M and counting thanks in part to a solid debut in China where it raked in $12.7M in only two days more than quintupling the opening of the last Mission: Impossible picture there. The $600M barrier will be crushed soon.

The top ten films grossed $91.3M which was up 5% from last year when The Rite opened in the top spot with $14.8M; but down 12% from 2010 when Avatar stayed at number one yet again in its seventh frame with $31.3M.

Compared to projections, The Grey opened ahead of my $14M forecast while One For the Money was on target with my $11M prediction. Man on a Ledge debuted below my $12M projection.

Get earlier box office updates and analysis by following BoxOfficeGuru.com on Twitter.

Check the UPDATED chart for the Oscar Nominees and Grosses and watch the trailer for Finding Nemo 3D.

For a review of War Horse visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Chronicle, The Woman in Black, and Big Miracle all open.

Marketplace - Shop for DVDs, electronics, books, and posters at discounted prices:

# Title Jan 27 - 29 Jan 20 - 22 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 The Grey $ 19,665,101 3,185 1 $ 6,174 $ 19,665,101 Open Road
2 Underworld: Awakening 12,352,802 25,306,725 -51.2 3,078 2 4,013 44,978,415 Sony
3 One for the Money 11,515,790 2,737 1 4,207 11,515,790 Lionsgate
4 Red Tails 10,370,323 18,782,154 -44.8 2,573 2 4,030 33,750,118 Fox
5 Man on a Ledge 8,001,932 2,998 1 2,669 8,001,932 Summit
6 Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 6,980,448 10,045,332 -30.5 2,630 6 2,654 20,941,702 Warner Bros.
7 Contraband 6,704,360 12,039,605 -44.3 2,650 3 2,530 56,573,860 Universal
8 The Descendants 6,405,285 2,372,298 170.0 2,001 11 3,201 58,703,299 Fox Searchlight
9 Beauty and the Beast 3D 5,307,807 8,779,676 -39.5 2,145 3 2,475 41,110,138 Disney
10 Haywire 4,002,760 8,425,370 -52.5 2,441 2 1,640 15,281,962 Relativity
11 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol 3,473,878 5,554,254 -37.5 1,654 7 2,100 202,565,203 Paramount
12 The Artist 3,315,089 2,371,803 39.8 897 10 3,696 16,744,187 Weinstein Co.
13 The Iron Lady 3,204,641 3,684,279 -13.0 1,244 5 2,576 17,519,123 Weinstein Co.
14 Joyful Noise 3,188,393 5,917,437 -46.1 2,021 3 1,578 26,675,903 Warner Bros.
15 Hugo 2,510,275 937,620 167.7 965 10 2,601 58,925,857 Paramount
16 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows 2,472,141 4,515,497 -45.3 1,530 7 1,616 182,211,057 Warner Bros.
17 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2,190,290 3,528,514 -37.9 1,202 6 1,822 98,185,403 Sony
18 War Horse 2,003,261 3,150,502 -36.4 1,861 6 1,076 75,618,652 Disney
19 Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked 1,782,185 3,076,168 -42.1 1,070 7 1,666 127,041,507 Fox
20 We Bought a Zoo 1,468,347 2,783,440 -47.2 1,089 6 1,348 71,705,878 Fox
Top 5 $ 61,905,948 $ 74,953,492 -17.4
Top 10 91,306,608 103,050,329 -11.4
Top 20 116,915,108 127,921,760 -8.6
Top 20 vs. 2011 116,915,108 103,033,112 13.5

Last Updated: January 30, 2012 at 5:30PM ET

Watch Gitesh Pandya's weekly box office preview on CNN International airing live each Thursday at 7:40pm ET.