Audiences hungered for some action at the weekend’s worldwide box office: Open Road’s “The Grey” lead the domestic B.O. with an estimated $20 million, while Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” reclaimed the top overseas spot, posting $25 million and pushing the film’s worldwide cume to a series-best $571 million.

“Ghost Protocol,” which surpassed “Mission: Impossible 2” at $546 million globally, crossed the $200 million domestic mark as of Sunday, with an additional $369 million in overseas coin.

Though “The Grey” fell short of repeating Liam Neeson’s $25 million opening for “Taken” (earned this same frame in 2009), the wolf adventure pic once again showcased Neeson’s B.O. muscle in mid-range budgeted action fare. Estimated to have cost around $20 million, “Grey” exceeded industrywide expectations, which had been pegged at just north of $10 million for the weekend.

“The picture played very broadly, which is a testament to Liam Neeson as a true movie star and (director) Joe Carnahan making a terrific movie,” said Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg of the company’s sophomore release.

“Grey,” along with a solid $11.8 million debut perf for Lionsgate’s femme-targeted “One for the Money,” helped 2012 domestic B.O. outperform the previous year for the fourth straight weekend. This weekend was up approximately 14%, according to one studio’s estimates.

Bowing in line with expectations, Summit’s “Man on a Ledge” scored an estimated $8.3 million in three days.

Meanwhile, the weekend’s Oscar-nominated fare, led by Warner Bros.’ “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and Fox Searchlight’s “The Descendants,” saw healthy perfs in wide release.

“Extremely Loud” ranked No. 6 overall with a projected $7.1 million, while “The Descendants” followed, grossing $6.6 million. “Extremely Loud” has cumed $21.1 million domestically; “Descendants” reached $58.8 million, positioning the film to become Searchlight’s fifth-highest Stateside grosser, behind 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” ($59.9 million).

Legging it out nicely for the Weinstein Co., Oscar-nommed “The Artist” expanded this weekend to 897 locations and grossing $3.3 million. Domestic cume is $16.7 million.

Roadside Attractions’ thrice Oscar-nominated “Albert Nobbs” got off to an OK start, averaging $3,154 from 245 Stateside playdates. “Nobbs” has cumed almost $823,000 including an awards-qualifying run.

Paramount and GK Films’ “Hugo,” which received the most Oscar noms with 11, scored a 143% weekend-to-weekend improvement thanks to 315 additional locations for a three-day gross of $2.3 million. “Hugo” also collected $2.7 million this weekend from six overseas territories in which Par is distributing. Domestic cume is $58.7 million, added to $15.4 million from Par-only international markets.

Among the weekend’s best domestic holds, Fox’s WWII fighter pilot pic “Red Tails” dropped a respectable 45% in its second outing, yielding a weekend take of $10.4 million. Pic has tallied $11.8 million in the U.S.

Sony-Screen Gems’ “Underworld Awakening” posted an estimated $12.5 million, which reps a soph-sesh drop of 51%. That’s compared to 2006’s “Underworld: Evolution,” which fell 58% in its comparable frame and had cumed $44.6 million after 10 days. “Awakening” stands at $45.1 million domestically.

B.O.’s demo split

The better-than-expected hold for the mostly male-targeted “Awakening” is even more promising given that “The Grey” also played slightly better with men, at 54%. “Man on a Ledge,” meanwhile, drew an even split between the genders, weighted more heavily to the under-35 aud.

“I think ‘The Grey’ affected us to some degree, but I also do think we had access to a wide-ranging audience,” said Summit prexy of domestic distribution Richie Fay.

Open Road is projecting a 35% Saturday-to-Sunday drop for “The Grey”; last year’s Neeson actioner “Unknown” dipped 30% over the same period. “Unknown” launched Feb. 18 with $21.9 million and hit a domestic cume of $63.7 million.

Ortenberg expressed high hopes for “The Grey” as it enters holdover mode, based on chatter from Twitter and Facebook. “We were trending Friday afternoon on Twitter, which is unusual for a non-blockbuster movie,” Ortenberg said.

Social marketing

Using discount site Groupon, Lionsgate said it managed to effectively target its marketing for “One for the Money,” sending email blasts to the site’s approximately 20 million subscribers.

Lionsgate distrib topper David Spitz added that the Groupon promotion wasn’t done to goose grosses but to attract the film’s adult female fanbase.

According to the distrib, 32% of the film’s audience polled on opening night were aware of the Groupon deal. A smaller portion (11%) of that group actually used the promotion, the majority of which were women.

“We all looked at our movie and asked, ‘How are we going to reach our audience?'” Spitz said. “That’s because our core mostly represents fans of the (Janet Evanovich) novel, who aren’t frequent moviegoers.”

For “Man on a Ledge,” Summit used the Livingsocial site to offer a buy-one-get-one-free package. “Man” received an overall B+ CinemaScore rating, while “Money” scored a B-. (Open Road conducted its own exit polls for “The Grey,” citing positive ratings.)

High-flying ‘Mission’

Par’s “Ghost Protocol” debuted Saturday in China, grossing in two days an outstanding $12.7 million on some 3,000 screens. Pic’s local bow is more than five times higher than that of “Mission: Impossible III” and 41% better than the Chinese opening of “Iron Man 2.”

“Ghost Protocol” opened on par with its predecessor in Italy, collecting $3.1 million on 170 screens, while Norway contributed a No. 1 debut of $1.2 million for “Ghost Protocol” on the same number of screens.

Elsewhere overseas, Fox introduced “The Descendants” to 24 new markets, led by the U.K., where the film grossed $2.8 million. Pic grossed a total $15.6 million over the weekend for an international cume just shy of $27 million.

Warner-New Line’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” sequel “The Mysterious Island” dropped a scant 10% in its second overseas frame, grossing $7 million with an offshore cume of $24.2 million. Warner launches the pic Stateside on Feb. 10.