Beware the Liam in Winter.
Liam Neeson's "The Grey" topped the weekend box office with $20 million, according to studio estimates Sunday, continuing the actor's success as an action star in the winter months.
The Alaskan survivalist thriller opened above expectations with a performance on par with previous Neeson thrillers "Taken" and "Unknown." Those films, both January-February releases, opened with $24.7 million and $21.9 million, respectively.
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But the R-rated "The Grey," which has received good reviews, drove home the strong appeal of Neeson, action star. It's an unlikely turn for the 59-year-old Neeson, previously better known for his dramatic performances, like those in "Schindler's List" and "Kinsey."
"Liam is a true movie star, period," said Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films. It's the second release for the newly formed distributor, created by theater chains AMC and Regal.
"My guess is that Liam Neeson in action thrillers would work just about any time of year."
January is often a dumping ground for less-stellar releases, a tradition held up by two badly reviewed new wide releases: "Man on a Ledge," with Sam Worthington, and "One for the Money" with Katherine Heigl.
"One for the Money" fared better, earning $11.8 million, while "Man on a Ledge" opened with $8.3 million.
Those were reasonably solid returns, and, in an unusual twist, were both ultimately for Lions Gate Entertainment. Its film studio, Lionsgate, released the romantic comedy "One for the Money." The action thriller "Man on a Ledge" was released by Summit Entertainment, which Lions Gate bought for $412.5 million earlier this month.
"One for the Money" was helped by a promotion with Groupon, the Internet discount site, with which Lionsgate previously partnered for "The Lincoln Lawyer." David Spitz, head of distribution for Lionsgate, said the large number of older, female subscribers of Groupon matched well with the audience of "One for the Money."
Groupon email blasts, he said, had a significant promotional effect.
Last week's box-office leader, "Underworld: Awakenings," Sony's Screen Gem's latest installment in its vampire series, came in second with $12.5 million, bringing its cumulative total to $45.1 million.
The unexpectedly large haul for "The Grey," strong holdovers (such as the George Lucas-produced World War II action film "Red Tails," which earned $10.4 million in its second week) and the bump for Oscar contending films following Tuesday's nominations added up to a good weekend for Hollywood. The box office was up about 15 percent on the corresponding weekend last year.
So far, every weekend this year has been an "up" weekend, after a somewhat dismal fourth quarter in 2011.
"'Mission: Impossible,' I think, really helped reinvigorate the marketplace, and that's carried over into the first part of the year," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "That's good news for Hollywood after the down-trending box office of 2011."
Oscar favorites "The Descendants," ''Hugo" and "The Artist" sought to capitalize on their recent Academy Awards nominations. Each expanded to more theaters and saw an uptick in business.
Fox Searchlight's "The Descendants," which is nominated for five Oscars including best picture, added 1,441 screens in its 11th week of release. It added $6.6 million and has now made $58.8 million, making it one of Fox Searchlight's most successful releases.
Sheila DeLoach, senior vice president of distribution for Fox Searchlight, said the film's nominations and its recent Golden Globes wins (for best drama and best actor, George Clooney) "played a big role" in its weekend box office.
Paramount's "Hugo," which led Oscar nominations with 11 including best picture, saw a 143 percent jump in business over its last weekend. In its tenth week of release, it earned $2.3 million, bringing its total to $58.7 million.
The Weinstein Co.'s "The Artist," with 10 Oscar nominations including best picture, expanded a modest 235 screens to bring it to a total of 897 screens in its 10th week of release. It earned $3.3 million, with a total of $16.7 million.
The Weinstein Co. is being careful with the black-and-white, largely silent film. Thus far, it has appealed particularly to older audiences.
"It's not the same type of picture as any other picture in the marketplace," said Erik Loomis, head of distribution for the Weinstein Co. "Now that the nominations are out, we're going to look to capitalize on it as best we can. ... We're being very, very meticulous with it. We're not throwing it out there and grabbing every theater we can. At some point, we'll open the floodgates on the movie, maybe closer to the awards."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Grey," $20 million.
2. "Underworld: Awakening," $12.5 million.
3. "One for the Money," $11.8 million.
4. "Red Tails," $10.4 million.
5. "Man on a Ledge," $8.3 million.
6. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," $7.1 million.
7. "The Descendants," $6.6 million.
8. "Contraband," $6.5 million.
9. "Beauty and the Beast," $5.3 million.
10. "Haywire," $4 million.