Controversial pics should keep business fired up

Controversy rules at the domestic box office this weekend, though there’s no arguing the earning potential of “Gangster Squad” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

While Warner Bros.’ starry mobster movie looks to lead in the low-$20 millions, Sony’s hunt-for-Bin-Laden pic, which picked up five Oscar nominations Thursday and widens to nearly 3,000 locations, could sneak up with an expected $18 million to $20 million.

“Gangster Squad” has a full marquee going for it — including Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Sean Penn — but the pic’s R rating will restrict younger auds.

Open Road Films looks to attract a mostly under-25 crowd with horror-comedy “A Haunted House,” launching today at 2,160 locations. The pic, which cost only $2.5 million to produce, should gross in the mid-to-high teens but is not likely able to catch either “Gangster Squad” or “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The triple threat should keep B.O. ahead of the comparable frame last year for the second straight weekend, a sizable feat considering the record-setting pace of the 2012 box office.

“Gangster Squad” won’t likely see any fallout from last year’s date change after the Aurora, Colo., shootings forced the studio to retool its finale, which depicted a movie-theater massacre. Including those reshoots, the 1949 L.A.-based film cost in the high-$60 millions.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” which has been quietly overperforming in limited release for three weeks, reached $5.2 million domestically through Wednesday. Pic’s cume may seem modest, but not when considering that Sony kept it to just five locations after its Dec. 21 opening before last week’s expansion to 60 playdates.

Stateside prospects depend on how well it registers in smaller markets. The congressional flap surrounding the pic’s torture scenes may help the film in those areas, as will its Oscar noms, which include best picture and screenplay.

Other Oscar nominees, including Universal’s “Les Miserables” and the Weinstein Co.’s “Django Unchained,” should also see a significant B.O. boost. Both pics are chugging along at north of $100 million domestically.

Meanwhile, Disney-DreamWorks’ nominations leader “Lincoln” is still playing at more than 2,000 Stateside locations. Cume was $145.5 million through Wednesday.

TWC plans to expand pic contender “Silver Linings Playbook” to approximately 2,500 locations next weekend, while Fox Searchlight’s fellow top-prize player “Beasts of the Southern Wild” will relaunch next week in major markets including New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and L.A. “Beasts” launched in June, taking $11.8 million domestically.

Austrian best-pic contender “Amour,” with more than $300,000 Stateside, will continue to expand domestically over the next few months via Sony Pictures Classics.

Internationally, Fox’s “Life of Pi,” which scored 11 Oscar bids including best picture, should have another big weekend overseas. Last weekend, the film surged to No. 1 with more than $60 million; worldwide cume is nearing $400 million. Pic expands to a few smaller territories this weekend.

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