Box office preview: 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Gangster Squad' target No. 1 spot

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Image Credit: Jonathan Olley

On the heels of Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations, Zero Dark Thirty is poised to shoot higher than newcomers Gangster Squad and A Haunted House and rise straight to the top of the box office.

Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial film about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, has earned $5.2 million after three weeks of limited release, during which it has played in no more than 60 theaters. Sony is now expanding the $40 million film into 2,937 theaters following the five Oscar nominations — though, shockingly, not a directing nom for Kathryn Bigelow — it garnered today.

Zero Dark Thirty is appealing to audiences not only as an Oscar contender and an action film. It also carries an assumed patriotic pedigree (and, to be clear, I know that that is up for debate) due to its anti-terrorist plotline. Last year Act of Valor, another patriotic military film, scored $24.5 million over its first three days by targeting red-state audiences with country music, Nascar, and the casting of actual Navy SEALs. Zero Dark Thirty, with its vague title and arthouse platform release strategy, will rely more upon media-saturated coastal audiences to drive its business — at least at first. Jessica Chastain, though not yet a box-office draw, should attract women to a film that could otherwise prove male-dominated. All told, Zero Dark Thirty may earn about $25 million over the Friday-to-Sunday period.

The long-delayed Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone crime drama Gangster Squad finally hits theaters this weekend (the film, which originally contained a movie theater massacre scene, was moved from September to January following the shootings in Aurora in order to make edits), and despite weak reviews, it should score a healthy debut. Gosling, with his shy demeanor and swoonworthy (to 99.99 percent of ladies) looks, has become something of a mysterious and sexy phenomenon over the last few years. His last wide release, Drive, rolled away with an unremarkable $35.1 million, perhaps because of its artsy sensibilities.

Gangster Squad will likely prove more accessible for mainstream audiences — especially thanks to the appealingly down-to-earth Emma Stone, who previously starred with Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love., which earned $84.4 million in 2011. Among period piece gangster films, the Warner Bros. release should fare better than last year’s Shia Labeouf vehicle Lawless, which debuted with $10 million on the way to a $37.4 million finish, but worse than the Johnny Depp/Christian Bale effort Public Enemies, which started with $25.3 million on the way to $97.1 million total in 2010. Out in 3,103 theaters, Gangster Squad could gather $19 million.

A Haunted House, another one of those spoofs-that’s-not-really-a-spoof-but-actually-just-a-collection-of-lame-references-to-movies-from-the-past-three-years in the genre popularized (and run into the ground) by the Scary Movie franchise, will also arrive in 2,160 theaters this weekend. Audiences generally seem to have wised up about these sorts of films. The last one to hit theaters, Vampires Suck, only earned $36.7 million. The one before that, Dance Flick, grossed $25.7 million. And before that Disaster Movie grossed just $14.1 million. (Oh gosh, that means their appeal has been increasing lately.) It’s significant to note, though, that the bar of success is low for A Haunted House thanks to its tiny $2.5 million budget, and it’s destined to be a profitable venture for its distributor. The film’s substantial marketing campaign will bring young people and urban audiences into the theater, and A Haunted House could earn $16 million in its first three days.

Among holdovers, expect Django Unchained and Les Miserables to each drop by less than 30 percent following their bevvy of Oscar noms and thus round out the Top 5 with about $15.5 million and $12 million, respectively.

Check back all weekend to see how high Zero Dark Thirty climbs, and follow me on Twitter for more box office musing and up-to-the-minute updates.

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