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‘The Grey’ is gold for Neeson

By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — With an estimated $20 million opening weekend under his belt, Liam Neeson has secured his status as the thinking man’s action star.

“The Grey,” Neeson’s latest thriller, cruised to the top spot at the box office this past weekend. The film, about a group of oil refinery workers battling the elements and the Alaskan wildlife after a plane crash, easily beat industry expectations, which had the movie topping out at $14 million.

“We knew on Friday we were doing well when ‘The Grey’ was trending on Twitter,” said Tom Ortenberg, chief executive of Open Road Films, distributor of “The Grey.” “We could tell the chatter was heading in a direction above and beyond what people thought we were going to do.”

“The Grey” is Neeson’s third successful action movie in a row. Last year’s “Unknown” took in $21.9 million in its first weekend, and 2009’s “Taken” made almost $25 million in its debut.

With a production budget of only about $25 million, “The Grey” figures to be in the black fairly quickly. Open Road, a joint venture formed last year by theater chains AMC Entertainment and Regal Cinemas, acquired the title for about $5 million.

Also doing better than expected in its debut was the Lionsgate action-comedy “One for the Money” starring Katherine Heigl. Based on the book by novelist Janet Evanovich about Stephanie Plum, a New Jersey woman who turns to bounty hunting after losing her retail job, the film cashed in at an estimated $11.7 million, good enough for third place overall and second place among new releases.

The reviews for “One for the Money,” which was not screened for critics, were far from encouraging and Hollywood insiders were doubtful that the movie, which cost about $40 million to make, would even crack the $10 million mark in its opening. However, the power of Evanovich’s heavily female fan base — the movie’s audience was almost 80 percent women — and a big discount offer for tickets from Groupon was apparently enough for it to beat the bleak forecast.

Given that the Super Bowl is next Sunday, David Spitz, president of theatrical distribution for Lionsgate, is hopeful that “One for the Money” will serve as an option for women looking to escape the game.

While “The Grey” and “One for the Money” were overachievers, “Man on a Ledge” from Summit Entertainment was not able to soar in its opening.

The movie, starring Sam Worthington about an ex-cop who has escaped from prison and is trying to prove his innocence, made just $8.2 million. The film’s production budget was about $42 million but Summit’s exposure is less than $10 million, as the production company sold most of the foreign rights to lower its risk on the movie.

Among the returning movies, Sony’s “Underworld: Awakening” still had enough bite to finish second overall with $12.5 million, a drop of about 51 percent from its opening-weekend performance.

Fox’s “Red Tails,” the George Lucas-financed and produced historical drama about the Tuskegee Airmen, which last week surprised box-office watchers with its $19.1 million debut, made $10.4 million, a respectable drop in altitude from Week 1 of 45 percent.

Several movies got an Oscar bump this past weekend. The picture that gained the most from its Oscar nominations was “The Descendants,” which took in $6.5 million. The family drama starring George Clooney, which is in its 11th week of release, expanded from about 600 theaters to 2,000.

Also benefiting from Oscar buzz was Weinstein Co.’s near-silent movie “The Artist,” which took in about $3.4 million, a 42 percent jump from the previous week. Paramount’s “Hugo,” another big Oscar contender, generated $2.3 million.

Lastly, “Ghost Protocol,” the latest in Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” series, became the biggest movie of the franchise’s history as it has now earned almost $600 million worldwide.

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