‘American Hustle': Expansion Explosion Bodes Well at Box Office (Video)

The $19M wide opening of David O. Russell’s raucous drama sets it up for a major surge after Oscar nominations

Bilbo vs. Ron Burgundy was the marquee battle at the box-office this weekend, but it was the performance of Oscar frontrunner “American Hustle” that caught the eye of industry observers.

While “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was holding off Will Ferrell‘s “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” for the top spot, David O. Russell’s raucous drama was battling with Disney’s “Frozen” for third – with a sizzling $19 million.

That’s quite the coming-out party, and some jump from the $740,455 that the Oscar frontrunner brought in from six theaters last weekend. It makes Sony’s decision to forego the platform release and take the big leap — into 2,507 theaters — look pretty good.

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It’s was easily director Russell’s biggest opening – the $15.8 million of 1999’s “Three Kings” was his previous best — and pretty much ends any doubts about the mainstream viability of the quirky tale of disco-era con men.

The opening number is what “Argo” did in its wide debut last year, before it went on to win the Best Picture Oscar and take in $232 million globally.

That’s a dream scenario at this point. Ben Affleck‘s Iran hostage drama opened in October and showed extraordinary staying power; it didn’t drop more than 50 percent until its 22nd weekend for Warner Bros.

But at Sony they know the best is very likely yet to come for “Hustle,” which tied with “12 Years a Slave” with seven Golden Globe nominations and is likely to hear its name mentioned frequently when the Oscar nominations are announced on Thursday, Jan..16.

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“We’re enjoying the ride,” Sony distribution chief Rory Bruer told TheWrap, “and very much looking forward to what comes next.”

The cast for Russell’s raucous drama, which is based on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the 1970s, is an all-star lineup from Russell’s two previous films: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter,” Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper from “Silver Linings Playbook,” a cameo from “SLP” co-star Robert DeNiro and, for a change of pace, a central role for the new-to-Russell Jeremy Renner.

“We knew we had something special with this film from the moment we saw it,” Bruer said of the film, which was made by Annapurna and Columbia Pictures for roughly $40 million. “The key was getting it out there and hoping that people would find it and recognize just how cool a movie it is.”

Mission accomplished, at least to a degree.

The critics have been sold for some time. It has a sterling 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but audiences – which broke down evenly between male and female and over and under 35 years of age – gave it a good-but-not-great “B+” CinemaScore.

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“This weekend was a great showing,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock. “My one concern about ‘American Hustle’ is word-of-mouth, which I don’t think will be as strong as ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ or ‘Argo’ had.”

Time will tell on that one, but the strong debut puts “Hustle” front-and-center in moviegoers’ consciousness heading into the Christmas corridor, and things stand to get better as the awards season kicks into high gear.

“Who knows how this will play out?” Bruer said, “but right now, the stars are very much aligned for us.”