‘Zero Dark’ commands top spot with $24 mil; ‘Haunted House’ scares ‘Gangster Squad’ for No. 2

Sony manhunt pic dominates competish in first weekend of wide release; 'Gangster' underperforms with $16.7 mil

Some mix of Oscar magic and good old controversy dictated the domestic B.O. over the weekend. Among those that received a boost from noms was “Zero Dark Thirty,” which overperformed with $24 million for its first frame in wide release.

Other pics to feel a boost from Acad love included Disney’s “Lincoln” and Weinstein Co.’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” The two best picture contenders enjoyed a 17% and 38% week-over-week jump, respectively, pushing the latter back into the domestic top 10 weekend grosses. Sony’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” also best picture-nommed, expanded by 2,877 engagements this week, building on the $5.5 million it made in limited release.

Its next-nearest competitor, Open Road’s “A Haunted House,” also topped expectations in a more modest way with a three-day haul of $18.8 million. Pre-weekend projections had “House” earning in the teens, but it was unexpected that the horror spoof would beat Warner Bros.’ “Gangster Squad” for second. The mob actioner underperformed this frame with $16.7 million, hurt in part perhaps by a renewed interest in adult-oriented Oscar fare following the nomination announcement.

WB distribution exec Jeffrey Goldstein said the mobster movie played well with under-35 moviegoers. That demo made up 58% of this weekend’s aud and gave the pic its highest CinemaScore of A-, which could mean a word-of-mouth bump in coming weeks. “The story’s not yet written,” Goldstein cautioned.

That said, “Gangster Squad” is facing heated competition next week from high-profile openers “Mama” from Universal, “Broken City” from Fox and “The Last Stand” from Lionsgate, plus the wide expansion of “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“Gangster Squad” opened overseas in 19 markets this frame where it made $9.1 million, just shy of breaking into the international top five. Fox’s “Life of Pi” dominated the overseas market again with $33.2 million in its eighth week in release.

Meanwhile, Weinstein Co.’s “Django Unchained” beat out Universal’s “Les Miserables” for fourth. “Les Miserables” also crossed the $200 million worldwide mark this frame.

And in a modest bow, Weinstein Co. opened “Quartet” at two locations for a per-screen average of $25,000.

Dollars and sense of controversy

Sony held “Zero Dark Thirty” in limited release for three weeks leading up to the post-noms frame. The long wait for such a highly anticipated film had some insiders scratching their heads, but Sony distribution topper Rory Bruer believes this weekend should prove skeptics wrong.

“The result sort of speaks for itself,” Bruer concluded of the distribution strategy.

In the midst of a Senate investigation sparked by the film, Sony co-chair Amy Pascal released a statement Friday — the day of the film’s expansion to 2,937 locations — blasting AMPAS member David Clennon for what she called an “attempt to censure one of the great films of our time.” This was in response to an op-ed penned by Clennon denouncing the film for suggesting that torture methods led to key information in the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Media attention is making the film part of a greater social conversation.

“It really is the movie of the moment that people are talking about,” said Sony’s Steve Elzer, “whether you are in Washington, Hollywood, New York or anywhere in between.”

The opening of “Gangster Squad,” meanwhile, was postponed from its original Sept. 7 date due to reshoots to replace a scene producers feared that too closely resembled the July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.

The ‘House’ that IM built

Open Road marketing prexy Jason Cassidy attributes “A Haunted House’s” surprise performance to strategic audience segmentation and scheduling. In a season devoid of outrageous comedies or pics courting minority communities, the Marlon Wayans starrer drew a 48% African-American and 30% Latino audience.

Still, Cassidy is surprised the scarer parody performed as strongly as it did next to “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Gangster Squad.” “Without question, they had a bigger media profile,” Cassidy said. “In that sense, it was a little surprising.”

“House” was produced by IM Global’s microbudget Octane division for $2.5 million last year, and financed through foreign pre-sales at Cannes. IM Global CEO Stuart Ford attributes the easy sell to foreign appeal for the “Scary Movie” franchise, also a horror parody and also toplining Wayans.

While both Cassidy and Ford mention the horror-friendly January berth as contributing to the film’s success, they also credit Wayans for being a tireless promoter of the project at every step.