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‘The Grey’ looks to lead box office pack

Fox Searchlight's 'The Descendants' also expands wide

Weekend box office prospects are looking a little grey compared to the previous three weekends, with Open Road’s wolf adventure pic “The Grey” looking to lead the pack while Fox Searchlight tries an ambitious nationwide expansion for Oscar-nominated “The Descendants.”

By comparison, each week so far this year had at least one film earn north of $20 million, topped by “The Devil Inside” which debuted Jan. 6 with $33 million.

Most pundits expect Liam Neeson starrer “The Grey” to hit around $12 million through Sunday. Summit’s “Man on a Ledge” is projected to bow somewhere in the high single-digits, followed by Lionsgate’s “One For the Money” tracking in the $5 million-$7 million range.

In its second outing, Sony-Screen Gems’ “Underworld Awakening” is expected to drop between 50%-58%, putting the film in the mix for the weekend’s top spot. “Awakening” bowed to $25.3 million.

Other Oscar-nommed titles will also look to make hay of their nods.

“Descendants,” at nearly 2,000 locations, sees the widest rollout of best picture Oscar-nominated pics, which also includes the Weinstein Co.’s “The Artist,” broadening to 897 playdates, and Paramount’s $56 million grosser “Hugo,” at 965. Entering its 11th frame, “The Descendants” has cumed $52 million domestically as of Wednesday; “The Artist” so far has tallied $13 million.

“Descendants” could have a big weekend outside the States, as it launches in a total 25 offshore markets, including Brazil, France, Germany, India, Russia and the U.K.

Top holiday holdovers, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” also expand to new territories this weekend. “Holmes,” which has cumed $261.3 million internationally, bows in France, while “Mission,” approaching $340 million, opens in China and Italy.

B.O. observers maintain that its unlikely overall box office will match previous years’ totals, such as in 2009 when Fox’s Neeson sleeper hit “Taken” kickstarted its $145 million-Stateside run this same weekend with an opening gross of nearly $25 million.

Like “Taken,” R-rated “The Grey” should appeal mostly to an over-25 male audience, though Open Road said the pic saw a recent uptick in female interest.

Budgeted at $20 million, “The Grey” follows a group of oil-rig bruisers led by Neeson, who fight to survive after their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Pic, which reunites Neeson with “A-Team” helmer Joe Carnahan.

Open Road said it used several cross-promotional strategies to market the pic to Christian and various ethnic groups. Distrib also partnered with the Weather Channel to promote “Grey,” focusing on the pic’s hazardous filming conditions in Alaska. “The Grey” marks only the second release for the distrib, after last year’s “Killer Elite,” which grossed $25 million domestically.

Also competing for male attention, Summit’s “Man on a Ledge,” starring Sam Worthington, Jamie Bell and Ed Harris, cost a reported $48 million. Tax rebates and foreign pre-sales reduced the studio’s exposure to approximately $8.5 million.

“Man on a Ledge,” along with Lionsgate’s “One for the Money,” are the first titles to open simultaneously after the Lionsgate-Summit merger earlier this month. It’s reported that neither company wanted to move their pic since they already had spent a good portion of their media budget. Katherine Heigl mystery pic “One for the Money,” based on the Janet Evanovich character, should act as effective female counterprogramming.

For “Man,” Summit partnered with Livingsocial, offering a buy-one-get-one-free date package, while Lionsgate sold half-price tickets for “Money” via Groupon.

Beside the weekend’s trio of Oscar pic contenders, Roadside Attractions’ “Albert Nobbs,” with three nominations including actress for Glenn Close, bows at a healthy 246 Stateside locations.

Weinstein’s “The Iron Lady,” which also received a bid for best actress for Meryl Streep, adds less than 200 locations for a total 1,244. Last weekend, “Iron Lady” landed in the top 10, with a revised weekend gross of $3.7 million. Pic has cumed $13.9 million domestically since bowing Dec. 30.

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