Forecast: 'Zero Dark' Expands Against 'Gangster Squad,' 'Haunted House'
Gangster Squad and A Haunted House open nationwide this weekend, though it looks unlikely that either of them will take first place. Instead, with its awards buzz and its controversial depiction of torture, Zero Dark Thirty has become the kind of adult-skewing event movie that studios dream of, and there's an awfully good chance it claims the top spot in its expansion.

The Kathryn Bigelow-directed CIA thriller, which details the hunt for and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was originally set to open nationwide on Dec. 19; recognizing how crowded the end-of-year schedule was, Sony made the shrewd decision to execute a limited roll-out that culminated in a nationwide push following the Academy Award nominations. This strategy has worked brilliantly so far: the movie has earned $5.2 million through three weeks despite only expanding to 60 locations, and it racked up five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) this morning.

While limited success often doesn't translate in nationwide release, there are plenty of indications that it will for Zero Dark Thirty. The simple reason is that the movie has become a "must-see" thanks to relentless (and, to some extent, manufactured) controversy surrounding the movie's depiction of torture. Is the movie in favor, against, or neutral on the topic? And is it even accurate? These are the kind of questions that have been discussed ad nauseam in the past few weeks, to the point where the Senate Intelligence Committee has even weighed in.

Of course, if a movie doesn't look appealing, that controversy will only go so far. Fortunately, Zero Dark Thirty appears to have something for everyone. Ads clearly show that it's an espionage drama and a war movie rolled in to one, which should appeal to men; meanwhile, women who may be less inclined to give a movie like this a chance could be lured by the strong female protagonist.

A great comparable movie is modern warfare flick Black Hawk Down, which followed a similar release pattern in December 2001/January 2002. When it expanded to 3,101 locations, it grossed $28.6 million, and that was before it had even received any Academy Award nominations. Zero Dark Thirty has 10 years of ticket price inflation and nearly as many theaters (2,937), so a weekend gross near Black Hawk Down's level seems entirely doable.

At 3,103 locations, Gangster Squad appears to have the edge among this weekend's newcomers. The crime thriller, set in 1940s Los Angeles, has a stacked cast that includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Sean Penn; while Stone is probably the biggest proven box office draw, Gosling has upped his star status significantly in recent years, and both actors are out-and-about doing a solid job selling the movie. Warner Bros. has also put together a fairly appealing ad campaign that emphasizes the movie's action and humor. Still, period crime thrillers have a spotty track record; Public Enemies opened to $25 million in its first three days, which is probably the high-point for Gangster Squad.

Believe it or not, it's been nearly two-and-a-half years since Vampires Suck ($36.7 million), which is the most-recent in a string of genre parody movies that have come out in the wake of Scary Movie ($157 million). Marlon Wayans, one of the creators of Scary Movie, gets back in the game this weekend with A Haunted House, which attempts to skewer the recent batch of supernatural horror movies like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism. The movie's light, silly marketing campaign suggests it will wind up in the $10-15 million range this weekend, which is standard for these cheap parody flicks; based on their limited costs, distributor Open Road Entertainment has indicated that would be a very good start for the movie.

Forecast (Jan. 11-13)

1. Zero Dark Thirty - $25.7 million

2. Gangster Squad - $21.4 million

3. Django Unchained - $14.8 million (-26%)

4. A Haunted House - $13.7 million

5. Les Miserables - $11.1 million (-31%)

6. The Hobbit - $10 million (-43%)

Bar for Success

With its nice blend of controversy and acclaim, and its huge theater count, Zero Dark Thirty ought to be getting close to $20 million. Gangster Squad would also be fine at around $20 million. Parody movies tend to fizzle quickly, and the winners seem to be the ones that open to at least $15 million, which is a fair standard for A Haunted House.

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