The Grey Storms into the Black

Moviegoers got out of the cold, and into it, as the Irish star dances with wolves and enjoys his third action-film hit

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Open Road Films

Neither frostbite nor ferocious wolves could keep Liam Neeson from dominating the midwinter box office. The Grey, his man-against-the-elements adventure set in the Alaskan wild, won the weekend at North American theaters with $20 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. One for the Money, a girl-power crime movie starring Katherine Heigl, exceeded low expectations and opened to $11.75 million, for third place behind last weekend’s winner, Underworld Awakening. The suspense drama Man on a Ledge, with Sam Worthington and Elizabeth Banks, did a quick fall from a basement window, earning just $8.3 million in its debut frame—but the overall box office was up about 14% from the same time last year. So far, every weekend in 2012 has been stronger than in 2011, leading anxious moguls to dream that folks haven’t totally forsaken the habit of going to the movies.

[UPDATE: In the “actual” figures released Monday, the three new mainstream releases all finished about $300,000 below their predicted totals: The Grey at $19.7 million, One for the Money at $11.5 million and Man on a Ledge at $8 million. Contraband and The Descendants switched seventh and eighth places, ending with $6.7 million and $6.4 million, respectively. Only the 10th-place Haywire significantly exceeded its Sunday estimate; instead of $3.6 million, it earned $4 million.]

The Grey is Neeson’s third winter action film to score with audiences. The 2009 Taken opened to $24.7 million, eventually grossing $145 million in the domestic market and $226.8 million worldwide, while last year’s Unknown earned $21.9 million its first weekend, $63.7-million over its full run in North American theaters and $130.8 million global. (In the same time, Neeson has also starred in a few movies — Five Minutes of Heaven, Chloe and After.Life — that registered barely a blip on moviegoers’ radar.) The R-rated thriller-chiller attracted an audience that tilted male (54%) and gave it a mediocre B-minus rating, as reported by the CinemaScore survey firm. But considering that the movie cost only $25 million to produce, The Grey will soon be in the black.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s review of The Grey)

One for the Money, based on the first in Janet Evanovich’s series of best-sellers about the saucy bail-bondwoman Stephanie Plum (most recent entry: Explosive Eighteen), was given scant chance to collar an audience. Unscreened for critics, then panned by those who paid to see it—a 3% grade on Rotten Tomatoes—the film nonetheless found its target demographic: 80% of the weekend customers were women, and 40% of those older than 40. Beyond luring the ladies of the Red Hat Society (whose official book is subtitled Fun and Friendship After Fifty), the movie benefitted from discounted tickets available on Groupon, and promotions on the Home Shopping Network and at the Curves workout chain.

That’s the cheerful news. The reality is that One for the Money was Heigl’s lowest-grossing debut weekend since the 2007 Knocked Up made her a star in charge of her own projects. The film’s $11.75 million marks a precipitous drop from the $23 million for 27 Dresses, the $27.6 million for The Ugly Truth, the $15.8 million for Killers and the $14.5 million for Life as We Know it. It’s also a hefty fall-off from director Julie Anne Robinson’s previous effort, the Miley-Cyrus-finds-teen-love sudser The Last Song, which took in $16 million its first weekend. The matchup of a star, even one who wattage has dimmed, with a killer femme-crime franchise should have translated into an opening nearer $20 million if it were to spawn the hoped-for sequels. And a subpar B-minus rating from CinemaScore indicates that the faithful who saw the film this weekend won’t be spreading enthusiastic word-of-mouth. Heigl’s Plum may not get as far even as Two for the Dough; instead it could be interred in the lady-sleuth cemetery next to V.I. Warshawski, the Sara Paretsky private eye whose 1991 movie debut, starring Kathleen Turner, was also her movie demise.

(MORE: See Corliss’s reviews of The Ugly Truth and Life as We Know It

Underworld Awakening, in which Kate Beckinsale puts the vamp back into vampire, held decently, a 50% drop from last weekend; and Red Tails, the George Lucas production about World War II’s all-black Tuskegee Airmen’s unit, slumped just 45% for fourth place this weekend. Last Christmas’s biggest gift to Hollywood, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, fell out of the top 10 in its seventh week, but crossed the $200 million mark in domestic theaters. Tom Cruise’s return to superstardom has earned $571.6 million worldwide, the highest gross for any of the four Mission movies (though in real-dollar it trails the 1996 original and its 2000 sequel). Not far behind was the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which is up to $182.3 million in North America and a $469.4 million planetary total.

At this time of the movie year, studio bosses don’t look back so much as forward — to Oscar hopefuls that use Academy Award citations as their pro-bono ad campaigns. That improbable front-runner The Artist, which received 10 nominations (while being named Best Picture by the directors’ and producers’ guilds), upped its theater count to 897 this weekend and pulled in $3.3 million, for a $16.7 million domestic total, just a bit under the $17.5 million earned so far by another Weinstein Company Oscar candidate, The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep: Best Actress). The Descendants, with five nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Actor (George Clooney), expanded from 560 to 2,001 theaters and reentered the top 10, with $6.6 million for the weekend and $59.8 million in its 11th week of release.

One film—Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close—fooled the Oscar gurus by landing among the Best Picture finalists. That surprising citation helped the post-9/11 family drama, starring Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Thomas Horn, to a sixth-place finish in its second weekend of wide release. Glenn Close was a Best Actress nominee for her work as the crossdressing Irish butler in Albert Nobbs, which opened to a muted $773,000 in 245 theaters. The real indie hits were the Best Doc nominee Pina, Wim Wenders’ tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch, which has already crossed the $1-million mark though playing in only 35 salons, and the Iranian drama A Separation, which snagged nominations for Best Foreign Language Feature and Best Screenplay. The film took in $281,000 in just 31 theaters. With rapturous reviews and the Oscar spotlight, it could easily become the first truly popular Iranian movie in the U.S. Here’s hoping for an art-house hit—and for détente, however uneasy, between the two countries.

(LIST: Top 10 Freezing Cold Movies)

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

  1. The Grey, $20 million, first weekend
  2. Underworld Awakening, $12.5 million; $45.1 million, second week
  3. One for the Money, $11.75 million, first weekend
  4. Red Tails, $10.4 million; $33.8 million, second week
  5. Man on a Ledge, $8.3 million, first weekend
  6. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, $7.1 million; $21.1 million, sixth week
  7. The Descendants, $6.6 million; $58.8 million, 11th week
  8. Contraband, $6.5 million; $56.4 million, third week
  9. Beauty and the Beast, $5.3 million; $41.1 million, third week of rerelease
  10. Haywire, $3.6 million; $15.3 million, second week