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Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ finishes second at box office, earns high marks

By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Ben Affleck’s “Argo” failed to win the top spot at the box office this weekend, but the political thriller may have scored a victory on its path to award season.

“Argo” had to settle for the runner-up position behind Liam Neeson’s “Taken 2,” which ruled the multiplex for the second consecutive weekend and grossed an additional $22.5 million, according to an estimate from distributor 20th Century Fox. That film has now collected a robust $86.8 million, or 62 percent more than the original “Taken” had collected after two weeks in theaters back in 2009.

The Warner Bros. film Affleck directed and stars in, meanwhile, opened with a respectable $20.1 million and performed better than four other new films debuting in wide release. Moviegoers who saw “Argo” this weekend loved it, assigning it a rare A-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore.

Pundits believe the film, which earned excellent reviews, has a shot at best picture at next year’s Academy Awards — meaning the movie now has a chance at becoming one of the few Oscar nominees that is also a commercial success.

“Commercial films have not always done well with the (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences),” said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, citing best picture winner “The Hurt Locker,” which grossed only $17 million in 2009. “It’s a tricky situation, but this movie fits the bill pretty well and plays to the academy’s core audience.”

According to a Los Angeles Times study published in February, the median age of academy members is 62. And “Argo” — based on the true story of a CIA agent who rescued six U.S. State Department employees from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis — appealed to an older audience this weekend. Roughly 52 percent of the film’s crowd was older than 50.

“I think older audiences like stories that revolve around a piece of history, because they remember what happened prior to those (Ronald) Reagan years,” said Fellman, whose studio co-financed the picture with producer Graham King’s GK Films for about $44 million.

“Argo” debuted with slightly lower opening-weekend figures than Affleck’s last directorial effort, “The Town.” That film started off with $23.8 million and ultimately brought in $92.2 million domestically in 2010. While the Boston crime drama was also beloved by critics, it received a B-plus CinemaScore, indicating “Argo” may ultimately play better if its strong word of mouth pays off.

Meanwhile, the low-budget horror film “Sinister” — made for a fraction of what “Argo” cost — took in a nice $18.3 million during its first weekend in theaters. (It should be noted, however, that “Sinister” actually opened at 10 p.m. on Thursday in some cities, a few hours before the rest of the weekend’s films.)

“Sinister” got a dismal C-plus CinemaScore from audiences this weekend, though scary movies often score poorly with opening-weekend crowds. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a crime writer who uncovers an eerie box of home movies.

The movie was made for only $3 million, and Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment acquired U.S. distribution rights last year. The film is from the producers of “Insidious” — another picture made for less than $5 million that did solid business at the box office.

Comedian Kevin James didn’t have much luck at the box office this weekend, as his new mixed martial arts comedy “Here Comes the Boom” started off with a ho-hum $12 million. James has yet to replicate the success he had as a leading man with 2009’s hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Sony Pictures, which financed “Here Comes the Boom” for about $42 million, has been trying to build the 47-year-old actor into a comedic draw a la its golden boy Adam Sandler.

At least those who saw the PG-rated “Boom” this weekend — a 45 percent family crowd — liked it, assigning it an average grade of A. The movie stars James as a teacher whose school encounters financial issues, so he takes up MMA fighting to help raise money for his employer.

The well-reviewed “Seven Psychopaths” also did lackluster opening-weekend business, launching with $4.3 million — though it played in roughly 1,500 fewer cinemas than “Boom.”

The Ayn Rand drama “Atlas Shrugged: Part II,” which also screened in about 1,000 locations, grossed an even less impressive $1.7 million.

Heading into the weekend, audience surveys indicated “Seven Psychopaths” would open with about $6 million, but the film couldn’t meet even that modest expectation. The movie, about a motley crew that steals a Shih Tzu, has earned fantastic reviews and features an ensemble cast that includes Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits.

Co-financed by distributor CBS Films with FilmFour and BFI for $13.5 million, “Seven Psychopaths” was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. The filmmaker’s “In Bruges,” which also starred Farrell and earned an Oscar nod for its screenplay, also struggled at the box office and never crossed the $10 million mark.

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