01/13/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Weekend Box Office: Zero Dark Thirty Tops While Gangster Squad Disappoints and Haunted House Exceeds Expectations

After nearly a month in limited release, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (review) finally went wide this weekend and it grossed $24 million to top the weekend box office. The film now has a $29 million cume.  All eyes were on this one, with the big question being whether critical acclaim and film punditry would translate into mainstream interest.  Obviously the current 'does the movie promote torture?' controversy brought the film all kinds of free publicity, but I'd argue it scared off just as many as it brought it.  By the way, no it doesn't endorse torture because... well just watch the movie again (essay 01/essay 02)!  Anyway, the closest comparison is the Martin Luther King Day Jr. weekend wide-release debut of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down eleven years ago next weekend, which pulled in $33 million over four days and $28 million over Fri-Sun.  The 'hunt for Bin Laden' film's debut is a bit lower, especially when inflation is accounted for (BHD's 3-day total is around $38 million in 2013 dollars), but the Scott picture was pretty much a nonstop action picture while Bigelow's is an icy and often cold 2.5 hour procedural where even the climactic action sequence is meant to disturb more than excite.  The film played 59% male and 62% over 30. Sony did a great job selling this one somewhat falsely as a triumphant action drama, although they didn't seem to make as much of an effort to bring in females for what is indeed a female-centric character drama (Jessica Chastain is terrific here).  Despite a merely okay  2.6x weekend multiplier, expect pretty strong legs as this becomes the defacto water-cooler Oscar contender (Oscar nomination essay 01/Oscar nomination essay 02), the one everyone has to see in order to participate in the national dialogue.
In an alternate universe, one where The Gangster Squad opened on September 4th and Zero Dark Thirty opened wide in late December, Open Road would have had the weekend to itself for the Marlon Wayans found-footage horror spoof A Haunted House.  Financed for just $2.5 million, the picture still withstood heavy competition and debuted with $18.8 million.  This was somewhat of a 'passion project' for Wayans, having had the Scary Movie franchise more or less taken from them after the underwhelming second installment (he called it, not incorrectly, more of a Celebrity Rehab that a satirical series at this point).  Anyway, the film received expectantly terrible reviews, but the utter absence of dumb comedy in the marketplace right now, as well as the obvious draw for African American audiences, helped it become hugely profitable in just its first three days.  It actually had a surprisingly high 2.8x weekend multiplier, meaning that there was a clear demand for what this film was selling.  We're actually getting a Scary Movie 5 this coming April, starring the likes of Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen (as well as relative innocent bystander Ashley Tisdale), so it will be interesting to see how the next chapter of the original franchise compares with this cheaper offshoot.
Coming in third place was The Gangster Squad (review), which took in $16.7 million.  The all-star period action thriller, starring the likes of Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn none of whom are 'box office'), was originally slated to be released on September 4th of 2012 before it was delayed and partially reshot in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting in July of last year.  At the time it was originally delayed, Zero Dark Thirty was supposed to open wide over Christmas, so Warner Bros. figured it could dominate the early-2013 slot.  Of course, Warner Bros. couldn't predict yet another shooting rampage would occur just under a month prior to this weekend, casting a newly negative light on gun play in cinema.  The continuing 'violence in cinema... discuss!' distraction plus the unexpected impact of Zero Dark Thirty would imply that Warner Bros. was probably better off just leaving the film as is in its original September 4th slot.  Better to be one of the very biggest films in September with a release date all to itself than having to slug it out with an entire slate of popular Oscar nominated adult fare. It's a guilty pleasure good time, full of dumb plot turns, overacting, and graphic violence, but it's no match for the sheer amount of high quality adult fare out right now.  Especially considering how much in addition to the film's $75 million budget Warner Bros. had to spend to reshoot, re-edit and then re-market the picture, The Gangster Squad should have just stayed put.  It stands to reason that leaving it where it was could have garnered *at least* $16.7 million without the additional expenses and headaches that the delay caused.

For more box office news, including how the Oscar nominated films did this weekend, read the rest of this article at Mendelson's Memos.