“The Grey” Tops Weekend Box Office. “One For the Money” and “Man On a Ledge” stumble.

HollywoodNews.com:In a somewhat refreshing turn of events, this weekend had three wide releases, all budgeted below $45 million and all technically geared towards adults. And for the fourth straight weekend this month, an R-rated new release topped the box office yet again. The top film of the weekend was Joe Carnahan’s wilderness survival drama, The Grey. The Liam Neeson vehicle, concerning plane crash survivors struggling to fend off death by various forms of nature (including wolves), opened with a solid $20 million. Yes, that’s slightly below the $21 million debut of Unknown and the $24 million debut of Taken around this time in 2011 and 2009, but those films were PG-13 while The Grey was rated R. The picture scored a B- from Cinemascore, which is not surprising. On one hand, it’s a good movie, a thoughtful and introspective mediation on several men coming to terms with their forthcoming demise. On the other hand, the film was sold as an action picture featuring Liam Neeson fighting wolves with his bare hands. Without going into spoilers, that’s not entirely accurate. Still the film obviously has fans, as the picture scored a relatively rare 3x weekend multiplier. Anyway, the film cost Open Road Films just $35 million, so this should be a solid moneymaker for the mini distributor even if the somewhat false advertising causes it to drop hard next weekend.

Coming in at second place was the Katherine Heigl vehicle, One For the Money. The long-delayed adaptation of the first of seventeen Stephanie Plum novels was not screened for critics, and the Friday morning smack-down seemed to imply that Lionsgate chose wisely. Despite awful reviews, poor buzz, and inexplicable tracking that predicted the film to open with just $5 million (huh?), the picture opened on the low end of Katherine Heigl’s standard opening weekend comfort zone, with $11.7 million. Say what you will about Heigl and her taste in projects, but she is an opener. Killers with Ashton Kutcher opened to $16 million, Life As We Know It opened with $14.5 million last year and New Year’s Eve (an ensemble piece where she was arguably the biggest box office star). And the novels have been around since 1994, so whomever at Lionsgate was able to convince the pundits that the picture was only going to open with $5 million deserves a raise for successful management of expectations. Now the meme is that the film ‘over-performed’ despite opening lower than any prior Katherine Heigl-as-lead movie in her relatively short career as a movie star. Anyway, the film cost $40 million, so whether or not we see a sequel will depend on legs and overseas business.

The third and final new release was a qualified whiff. The Summit Entertainment release, Man On a Ledge, opened with $8.3 million. It’s basically a B-movie thriller filled with the kind of stars that audiences have heard of but not the kind that put butts in the seats (Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Banks, etc). But the picture cost $40 million, which is a bit much for a film without any real box office draws, so the film will have to have inexplicably strong overseas numbers to make a profit anytime soon. On the plus side, Summit has plenty of foreign pre-sales locked up, and it’s the sort of film that will play on TNT for the next 300 years. For what it’s worth, the film scored a B+ from Cinemascore, played 50% female, with 70% under 35 years old. Of note in this case is the strange fact that Lionsgate now owns Summit Entertainment, a partnership that happened so fast that there was no time to move the respective release dates this weekend. This will be a problem as several Summit releases will be going head-to-head with Lionsgate releases over 2012. Another bit of trivia… both of the above films did have a promotion with discount-coupon site. Groupon was offering discount tickets for One For the Money while Social Living with paired with Man On A Ledge. Whether or not that affected the weekend take (more tickets purchased due to the discount, although studios report the full value of all tickets sold) is not information I am privy to, but it is worth mentioning none-the-less.

There’s frankly not much to report in holdover news, so I’ll try to keep this short. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol not only crossed the $200 million mark in the US this weekend, it surpassed the $545 million worldwide gross of Mission: Impossible II to become Tom Cruise’s second-biggest worldwide hit. The $591 cume for War of the Worlds is still within reach. With a surprise Best Picture Oscar nomination, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dropped a decent 25% in weekend two. The picture has $20 million in its second weekend of wide release and will surpass its $25 million budget this coming week. The biggest beneficiary of Oscar nominations was The Descendants, which added 1400 new screens and jumped up 176% for a $6.5 million weekend. The Alexander Payne-helmed George Clooney drama now has $58 million, which means it will surely surpass the $72 million gross for Sideways and probably the $81 million gross for Up in the Air. The Artist may be the presumptive front runner for Best Picture, but it is still struggling past $15 million (it grossed $3.3 million this weekend and now has $16 million) and may not break $30 million even with the win. Still, the film cost just $15 million so it will make money in the end, especially with overseas business factored in.

All three of last weekend’s releases took hardy drops. Haywire tumbled hardest, falling 55% in weekend two for a $4 million second weekend and a $15.5 million ten-day total. It may not even reach its $23 million production budget, although the arty Steven Soderbergh action picture should have better luck overseas. Red Tails dropped a decent 44%, for a $10.4 million second weekend. With $32 million after ten days, the film may will likely recoup its $58 million production budget domestically. Here’s hoping that Fox can work its overseas magic. Last weekend’s box office champ, Underworld: Awakening, dropped an encouraging 50% in weekend two, for a $12.5 million second weekend and a ten day total of $44.6 million. All three figures are high-water marks for the Underworld franchise, meaning that this should easily be the biggest grosser in the series even without that overseas 3D bump we discussed last weekend. It’s already pretty much matched the $45 million total gross of Rise of the Lycans, while it barely trails the $51 million total domestic gross of the first Underworld and is catching up to the final $62 million domestic gross of Underworld: Evolution. In other news, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sits with $98 million, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows crossed the $180 million mark, Beauty and the Beast crossed $40 million, and Contraband sits with $56 million.

That’s it for this weekend. Join us next time when CBS Films debuts the Daniel Radcliffe period ghost story The Woman In Black, Fox releases the ‘found-footage’ super hero drama Chronicle, and Universal marshals Drew Barrymore, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, Tim Blake Nelson, and Rob Riggle to save a beached whale in Big Miracle. Until then, take care and keep reading.

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