Navy SEALs’ Act of Valor Takes Oscar Weekend

The Pentagon-approved action film locks down the No. 1 slot, as the Oscar-favorite silent film "The Artist" manages only a whisper

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Relativity Media / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Celebrate the movies in all of us,” says an ad for tonight’s Oscar ceremony. That could be a cue not just to watch the show, broadcast on ABC, but to please catch up with the front runner for Best Picture, The Artist. Instead, audiences this weekend celebrated their inner macho man by flocking to Act of Valor, an action film green-lighted by the Pentagon and starring active-duty Navy SEALs as they save America from an international terrorist plot to bomb Las Vegas. According to early studio estimates, the film took in a burly $24.7 million at North American theaters to dominate the weekend box office and leave the other new contenders — Tyler Perry, Jennifer Aniston and Amanda Seyfried — strewn on the multiplex floor like so many jihadist carcasses. Booyah!

Directed by a couple of ex-stuntmen who call themselves the Bandito Brothers, and registering a pallid 30% on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate of film reviews, Act of Valor is unlikely to figure in the Oscar balloting a year from now. Yet it won a rave from the Moviegoer in Chief, Barack Obama, who hosted a White House screening. In an undercover video taken during the President’s introduction (hold on — didn’t the Secret Service confiscate all smart phones?), the President tells the assembled SEALs and Navy brass, “I hope you enjoy it. I can’t wait to see it … from what I hear, I think it’s terrific.” Afterward, the Los Angeles Times reported, Obama “told the filmmakers he liked it, according to a person who was present at the screening.” And why not? This was the military unit that scored the top coup of his Administration by killing Osama bin Laden.

Average Americans liked the movie too, giving it an A grade on CinemaScore’s polling of early moviegoers. The film’s demographics fit in with the Defense Department’s hopes that it would serve as a recruiting aid for the SEALs: 71% of the audience was male, 60% over the age of 25 and 64% Caucasian. (The SEALs are among the “whitest” branches of the U.S. armed forces.) According to the Hollywood Reporter, the picture “did especially well in the Southeast, Southwest and West, regions rife with military bases.” Made for just $12 million, and bought for $13 million by Relativity Media, Act of Valor is the latest success story in a movie year that has seen a box-office resurgence, with every weekend in 2012 beating the same weekend last year. This time the uptick was 24%.

(MORE: Corliss’s Review of Act of Valor)

The other three new releases, though, ticked down. Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds earned a soft $16 million, the second lowest debut for any of the 11 films written by the Atlanta all-purpose mogul (Daddy’s Little Girls opened to $11.2 million five years ago) and the worst for any of the 10 movies in which he has appeared as an actor. This weekend’s attendees were 76% female, and 85% over 25; the A CinemaScore ranking means Good Deeds may get restorative word of mouth from Perry’s core constituency of older black women.

Gloomier stats greeted the other new Relativity release, Wanderlust, an R-rated comedy starring Aniston and Paul Rudd as a married couple who sample sexual liberation in a groovy commune. Landing lamely in eighth place on the weekend’s top 10, the $30-million production earned just $6.6 million and managed a submediocre B– grade from its sparse crowd, which skewed female (57%) and older (61% over 30). Even more pathetic were the numbers for Gone, Seyfried’s to-catch-a-killer thriller: it finished ninth, earned a threadbare $5 million and got slapped with a C+ CinemaScore from its 64%-female audience. If you’re tabulating by gender this weekend, the three new movies aimed at women earned only slightly more ($27.6 million) than the one testosterone treat.

(MORE: Mary Pols’ Review of Wanderlust)

Aside from Act of Valor, the good news for Hollywood came in the sustained power of three movies in their third week of release. The noble weepie drama The Vow topped $100 million, Denzel Washington’s spy-chase drama Safe House neared the nine-figure threshold, and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island dropped just 32% from last week to take third place in the top 10. In 17 days, these three February movies have earned more than $275 million in North American theaters and another $265 million in foreign markets — an impressive stash for these normally somnolent winter months. Even longer legs were displayed by Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. Tarted up in 3-D, the 1999 George Lucas epic has now grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and this week moved up to 10th place on the all-time-winners list, nosing out The Dark Knight and closing in on Alice in Wonderland.

(LIST: 10 Things We Still Kinda Hate About The Phantom Menace)

In Indieland, the specialty box office was all oldies — Oscar hopefuls on their last lap before the big show. The Descendants, which would love to overtake The Artist for Best Picture, increased its total to $78.5 million in its 15th week in theaters. The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, hit the $25 million mark in its ninth week. In much more limited releases, the Iranian drama A Separation (touted to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and Wim Wenders’ dance film Pina (a strong contender for Best Documentary Feature) both inched past $2.5 million.

That leaves The Artist, French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ sweet, smart tribute to Hollywood in its long-ago era of silent films. Recipient of many best-of-year prizes from critics and the movie guilds, the film has yet to click with audiences, failing to break into the box-office top 10 in any of its 14 weeks of release. For the first time this weekend, it finally earned as much as $3 million but remained mired in 13th place.

The Artist’s total domestic gross is $31.9 million — an encouraging stat for a silent, black-and-white comedy with no stars, but also a number that Act of Valor is bound to pass within its first 10 days of release. If Hazanavicius’ film wins the big prize, it will be the least seen Best Picture winner in history except for The Hurt Locker. That searing drama about soldiers in the war on terrorism got no help from the Pentagon and flopped at the box office, precisely because it lacked the splashy heroics of Act of Valor.

(MORE: TIME Picks the Oscar Winners)

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

  1. Act of Valor, $24.7 million, first weekend
  2. Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds, $16 million, first weekend
  3. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $13.5 million; $76.7 million, third week
  4. Safe House, $11.4 million; $98.1 million, third week
  5. The Vow, $10 million; $103 million, third week
  6. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, $8.8 million; $37.8 million, second week
  7. This Means War, $8.5 million; $33.6 million, second week
  8. Wanderlust, $6.6 million, first weekend
  9. Gone, $5 million, first weekend
  10. The Secret World of Arrietty, $4.5 million; $14.7 million, second week