Zero Dark Thirty Waterboards the Competition

The get-bin-Laden docudrama tops a 'Haunted House' spoof and a star-laden 'Gangster Squad'

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Jonathan Olley / Zero Dark Thirty LLC / Columbia Pictures

To the list of things that Washington politicians can’t accomplish, add one more item: keeping people from seeing a movie.

Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the CIA‘s hunt for Osama bin Laden, either sidestepped or exploited denunciations of the film from Democratic and Republican Senators, and from much of the federal and media policy establishment, by earning a firestorm $24 million at North American theaters and winning the weekend, according to preliminary studio estimates.

(READ: Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers defend their movie)

On the days after Academy Award nomination were announced, ZDT shared the top-10 box-office list with four other Best Picture finalists: Django Unchained in fourth place, Les Misérables in fifth, Lincoln in seventh and Silver Linings Playbook in tenth. A Haunted House and Gangster Squad — two new movies with little chance of earning Oscars this, next or any year — finished in the second and third spots.

(READ: TIME’s predictions of this year’s Oscar winners)

In early December, ZDT piled up wins from critics’ groups as the year’s Best Picture and, for Kathryn Bigelow, Best Director. But as it was playing in only a handful of theaters through the holidays, the movie took hits from Senators, CIA brass, liberal pundits and the lawyers for Gauntanamo detainees over the question of whether it portrayed the waterboarding of terror suspects as leading directly to the capture of the al Qaeda chief. On Thursday the film absorbed another face-slap, when the directors’ contingent in the Motion Picture Academy denied Bigelow a nomination in the category she won three years ago with The Hurt Locker. ZDT did snag five nominations, including one for Best Picture.

(READ: Massimo Calabresi on the Zero Dark Thirty torture debate)

With a woman (indie fave Jessica Chastain, also an Oscar nominee) in the main role, no big stars and no violent heroics until the last half-hour of its 2hr.37min. running time, ZDT might have seemed an iffy prospect for No. 1. But the movie attracted exactly the male-skewing (59%), more mature (62% 30 or older) audience of an Expendables-style action movie. Early attendees polled by CinemaScore gave the film a muscular A-minus rating. As for the tortuous torture controversy, it created avid want-see, especially in the D.C. area among people in a position to know the inside story. Of the 2,937 theaters where it played in its first wide-release weekend, ZDT did its best business at the Tysons Cross 16 multiplex in McLean, Va., where the CIA is located. Third best was the Hoffman 22 in Alexandria, Va., home of the Pentagon.

(READ: Lily Rothman’s chat with Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain)

If ZDT holds strong through the six weeks between now and Oscar night, it will give Bigelow something she has never had: a big hit movie. ZDT made more money this weekend than The Hurt Locker did in its entire domestic run ($17 million). It amassed more than the total revenue of four other Bigelow films: the 1987 Near Dark ($3.37 million), the 1990 Blue Steel ($8.2 million), the 1995 Strange Days ($8 million) and, in 2000, The Weight of Water (a dismal $109,130). Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford, took in $35.2 million in 2002; but its $100-million budget kept the project from ever breaking even. Bigelow’s only real profit-earner was Point Break, the surfer-dude caper with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze; its $43.2 million gross in 1991 would be about $80 million today. ZDT could meet or exceed that number in the next few weeks.

(READ: Radhika Jones’ profile of Kathryn Bigelow)

In a mild surprise, second place at this weekend’s box office went to A Haunted House, a parody of such found-footage horror films as the Paranormal Activity series. Made for a teeny $2.5 million, Haunted earned $18.2 million in its first three days. Marlon Wayans, its star and cowriter, has been spoofing B-movie genres since the 1996 Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and later with Scary Movie 2 and Dance Flick. Wayans’ name, plus the opportunity to laugh at the kind of movie they previously paid to be frightened by, attracted audiences of color (48% African-American, 30% Latino) with an accent on women (58%), who gave the film a middling-to-low B-minus grade on CinemaScore.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of the Paranormal Activity films)

Gangster Squad had plenty of respected names — Oscar nominees Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling as ruthless L.A. detectives chasing two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn as real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, plus Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie and Nick Nolte — but not enough star power to overcome the movie’s tepid reviews and bad mojo. This was the movie whose trailer, showing a gunman blasting away at the patrons of a movie theater, played just before last July’s Aurora, Colo., midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises that ended in 12 dead and 58 wounded. Gangster Squad was pulled from its Sept. release and recut; the movie theater scene was removed. Opening against a bunch of adult-aimed movies — the top four grossers this weekend were rated R — this cops-and-thugs drama pulled in a disappointingly pacific $16.7 million. The picture’s audience (50% male, 58% under 35) gave it a fairly favorable B-plus rating; but Gangster Squad will need to do much better, especially when it opens abroad, if it is to earn back its $70-million budget.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Gangster Squad)

Of the nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture, four films (Django, Les Miz, Lincoln and Argo) have already earned more than $100 million at the North American box office. Life of Pi (13th place this weekend) is at $94.8 million and will reach the nine-figure benchmark for hit movies. ZDT has a decent shot. And Silver Linings, which got the biggest Oscar bump this weekend (up 38%), has already amassed $41.3 million in limited release of about 800 theaters. After nine weeks of quietly stocking actors’ awards and nifty grosses, the neuro-romcom finally opens wide this coming Fri.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Silver Linings Playbook)

That leaves two very impressive “little” pictures: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s magical-mystical Delta drama that earned $11.2 million in its summer-autumn run, and which shocked Hollywood with four major nominations (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and, for nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, Best Actress); and Amour. On Thursday, Michael Haneke’s end-of-life romantic thriller became the first foreign-language film to receive Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actress (85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva), plus one in the Foreign Language category. Currently playing in just 15 theaters, where this weekend it earned $270,600 for the highest per-screen average, Amour will expand aggressively in the next few weeks. Could the film reach $100 million? Unlikely. But it will give the pre-Oscar season, starting now, a sober, elegant French accent.

(FIND OUT: where Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild landed on Corliss’ Top 10 Best Movies of 2012)

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

1. Zero Dark Thirty, $24 million; $29.5 million, fourth week
2. A Haunted House, $18.2 million, first weekend
3. Gangster Squad, $16.7 million, first weekend
4. Django Unchained, $11.1 million; $125.4 million, third week
5. Les Misérables, $10.1 million; $119.2 million, third week
6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $9.1 million; $278.1 million, fifth week
7. Lincoln, $6.3 million; $152.6 million, 10th week
8. Parental Guidance, $6.1 million; $60.6 million, third week
9. Texas Chainsaw 3D, $5.1 million; $30.8 million, second week
10. Silver Linings Playbook, $5 million; $41.3 million, ninth week