Forecast: Neeson Vs. Wolves To Be Main Attraction This Weekend
After successfully beating up on countless European henchmen in Taken and Unknown, Liam Neeson is now set to face off against some hungry wolves in The Grey. The survival thriller opens at 3,185 locations this weekend, and should claim first place ahead of fellow newcomers Man on a Ledge (2,998 theaters) and One For the Money (2,737 theaters). Meanwhile, The Descendants has the biggest expansion among Oscar nominees (up to 1,997 locations), and should once again make its way in to the Top 10.

While he has periodically flirted with action roles throughout his career, it wasn't until the last few years that Liam Neeson became known as one of cinema's leading ass-kickers. That persona is largely due to the remarkable popularity of Taken, which opened to $24.7 million on this same weekend in 2009 and ultimately closed with a huge $145 million total. He also starred in the big-screen adaptation of The A-Team (25.7 million/$77.2 million) and was almost entirely responsible for Unknown's solid showing last Winter ($21.9 million/$63.7 million). The Grey finds Neeson right back in his wheelhouse, though the change in setting (Alaska) and enemy (a bunch of wolves) will keep things fresh.

The Grey is distributor Open Road's second movie following September's Killer Elite, which also featured action star Jason Statham doing his thing (acting tough and beating people up). Even with a ubiquitous marketing effort, though, Open Road was only able to open that movie on the low-end of Statham's range ($9.3 million), which suggests that The Grey is also in line for lower-than-average Neeson returns. Even if it doesn't open at Unknown's $21.9 million, though, it should still take the top spot against a weak field.

One for the Money is Katherine Heigl's first outing as a leading lady since her 2010 releases Killers and Life as We Know It opened to $15.8 million and $14.5 million, respectively. Those had much more consistent marketing efforts than One for the Money, though the new movie has two things working in its favor. It's adapted from the first novel in author Janet Evanovich's extremely popular Stephanie Plum series, which should make it the top choice for the series' legion of fans. Also, it follows similar book adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer as Lionsgate's second try with selling discounted tickets through Groupon. That movie debuted to $13.2 million last March; One for the Money could wind up close to that level.

Man on a Ledge is also offering discounted tickets this weekend, though it's doing so through LivingSocial instead of Groupon. The movie has an interesting cast headlined by Avatar/Clash of the Titans star Sam Worthington, though not even he is all that bankable (remember The Debt?). Previews have been muddled so far, with some focusing on Worthington's character on the ledge, and others centered around a standard-looking heist. A Summit spokesperson indicated that they expect a high single-digit opening, which seems reasonable enough.

As of two weeks ago, Lionsgate officially owns Summit, making the One for the Money and Man on a Ledge face-off a bit awkward. Since the deal closed so recently, there was no chance for the dates to move—the same might go for Tyler Perry's Good Deeds (Lionsgate) and Amanda Seyfried thriller Gone (Summit), which are both currently scheduled for Feb. 24. There's also an issue on July 27 when Tyler Perry's The Marriage Counselor (Lionsgate) faces Step Up 4 (Summit), though there's plenty of time to shift those around. Finally, there's tentatively a conflict on Jan. 18, 2013 (Summit's Now You See Me and Lionsgate's The Last Stand), but that's so far down the road it isn't even worth discussing.

After scoring five Academy Award nominations, including ones for Best Picture, Director (Alexander Payne) and Actor (George Clooney), The Descendants is expanding in to nearly 2,000 theaters on Friday. It's already made over $52 million and played to a nationwide audience, though, so it's unlikely that the movie makes a play for one of the top spots. Other Oscar contenders Hugo and The Artist are also expanding in to 965 and 897 theaters, respectively, though both will probably fall short of the Top 10. Weekend Forecast (Jan. 27-29)

1. The Grey - $17.9 million

2. One for the Money - $12.5 million

3. Underworld Awakening - $12.2 million (-52%)

4. Red Tails - $9.8 million (-47%)

5. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - $7.5 million (-25%)

6. Man on a Ledge - $7.2 million

7. The Descendants - $6.5 million (+174%)

8. Contraband - $6.4 million (-47%)

Bar for Success

Opening in over 3,000 theaters and featuring Liam Neeson in a signature role, The Grey should at least get in to the high-teen-millions. With Katherine Heigl and popular source material, One for the Money really ought to open close to $15 million, while Man on a Ledge is fine anywhere over $10 million.

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