‘Zero Dark Thirty’ captures No. 1 at box office

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - “Zero Dark Thirty” hunted down the top spot at the box office _ and easily won it.

Sony Pictures’ controversial Osama bin Laden raid drama nabbed first place with $24 million in its first weekend in wide release, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The film, which opened in a limited run last month, earned five Oscar nominations last week, including best picture, original screenplay and actress for Jessica Chastain as a dogged CIA operative.

Open Road Films’ horror parody “A Haunted House” starring Marlon Wayans debuted in second place with a solid $18.8 million. The Warner Bros. mobster drama “Gangster Squad,” starring Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling as off-the-books police officers battling a mob boss played by Sean Penn, opened below expectations in third place with $16.7 million.

After earning Oscar nominations last week, several Academy Awards contenders benefited at the box office. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved up the unveiling of the Oscar nominations to Thursday, three days ahead of Sunday’s Golden Globes, Hollywood’s second-biggest awards ceremony organized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

“The timing is great because there are a host of these awards contenders still out there,” said Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst at Hollywood.com. “`Django Unchained,’ `Les Miserables,’ `Lincoln,’ `Silver Linings Playbook’ and a few others are still out there. Which movies win tonight at the Golden Globes will definitely receive a boost going forward.”

At the Golden Globes, “Zero Dark Thirty” will be up against “Argo,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi” and “Lincoln” in the best motion picture drama category. It’s also competing against those films for the best picture prize at the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 24, as well as “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Les Miserables” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Controversies surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty,” which depicts waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, may have helped create buzz for the film. Several lawmakers accused the CIA of misleading “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmakers by allegedly telling them such interrogation methods helped track down terrorist mastermind bin Laden in 2011.

“There are so many facets of `Zero Dark Thirty’ that have created interest in it,” said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony. “Ultimately, it’s a great film. That’s the piece that you really need to have to get this great of a result. I think it’s a film that’s not only going to do well in the marketplace but also be talked about for years to come.”

The weekend’s third place finisher, “Gangster Squad,” similarly attracted controversy last year after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater left 12 dead. Warner Bros. pulled the movie’s trailer and delayed the release out of sensitivity because the film originally featured a scene with mobsters ruthlessly shooting into a movie theater audience.

The entire sequence featuring Brolin’s character being ambushed inside famed Hollywood movie palace Grauman’s Chinese Theater was removed from “Gangster Squad” and replaced with a new scene, which cost millions of dollars to reshoot, set in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood. The rest of the film’s many bullet-ridden Tommy gun battles remained intact.

“There’s nothing that indicates violence was an issue,” said Jeff Goldstein, general sales manager at Warner Bros. “I don’t think that’s the case here. The exit polling tells us that people liked what they saw in `Gangster Squad.’ I think we’ll have a nice hold going into the holiday weekend where people will be more available and have more leisure time.”

Internationally, “Life of Pi” dominated in 68 territories with $35.8 million, bringing its worldwide total to $452.1 million. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” followed closely behind with $35.1 million in 62 territories. The worldwide total for the first “Hobbit” chapter is now $886.1 million. “Les Mis” earned $35.6 million in 23 territories, giving it a $234.3 million worldwide total.

Overall business in North America this weekend came in at $142 million, up more than 7 percent from the same period last year, when the Mark Wahlberg thriller “Contraband” led the box office with $24.3 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. It marks the third weekend in a row for Hollywood when business has been up over last year.

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