"The Grey" — Open Road Films' second release ever — took a surprising $20 million at the domestic box office this weekend, making it the top movie in the country.
While Open Road targeted men in its R-rated action drama about an oil drilling team that is pursued by a pack of wolves after an airplane crash in Alaska, Lionsgate went after a different audience with its PG-13 comedy "One for the Money."
The strategy worked: "One for the Money," based on the Janet Evanovich novel, debuted to $11.75 — exceeding projections by almost $2 million. The $11.75 million made it the No. 3 movie in America — just behind Sony's "Underworld: Awakening."
While "The Grey" and "One for the Money" debuted to better-than-expected numbers, the 11-week-old "The Descendants" enjoyed a significant bump after going wide for the first time, and grossed $6.6 million. Fox Searchlight expanded the number of locations showing the movie by 1,441 — to 2,001.
In limited release, Roadside Attractions' Academy Award-nominated "Albert Nobbs" arrived at 245 locations and grossed $772,730.
Meanwhile, Paramount's "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" became the highest-grossing film of that franchise. In its seventh week, the movie crossed the $200 million mark domestically and hit $571 million worldwide. The 2000 "Mission: Impossible II" had been the top-earner in the franchise, with $546 million.
Overall, this has been a good weekend at the box office. Compared to the same weekend last year, the box office was up about 14 percent.
That has been the case each week this month. More encouraging for the industry, each No. 1 movie of this month — "The Devil Inside," "Contraband," "Underworld: Awakening" and now "The Grey" — has exceeded projections.
Of the three movies that opened in wide release this weekend, "The Grey" was the sole R-rated movie. It drew more men than women — about 54 percent of its audience was made up of men. And it had a slightly older crowd — just more than half the audience was made up of people 25 and older.
"We're thrilled," Open Road's CEO, Tom Ortenberg, told TheWrap Sunday morning. "We were able to pull off this kind of result with only our second release, and getting outspent by the competition, as we always will."
He noted that star Liam Neeson's last two films have been rated PG-13 — "so we know the 'R' rating precludes a few people who want to go."
Joe Carnahan directed the movie, which received an unimpressive "B-" ranking from the audience survey firm Cinemascore.
Open Road Films, financed by AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment Group, acquired "The Grey" while the movie was in postproduction. While the movie had a budget estimated at around $25 million, the company is believed to have acquired it for around $5 million.
While Ortenberg declined comment, "The Grey's" strong numbers should more than cover the company's overhead for the remainder of the year. And Open Road is scheduled to release at least five more movies — plus three for FilmDistrict — in 2012.
"One for the Money," Lionsgate's action-comedy starring Katherine Heigl, slightly exceeded projections, taking in $11.75 million — enough to put it in third place, behind Sony's "Underworld: Awakening," this weekend.
The movie, directed by Julie Anne Robinson, is about a woman who goes to work for her cousin's bail bond business and goes after an ex-boyfriend — a local police officer who is on the run.
Lionsgate targeted the movie squarely at women. It promoted the film on Home Shopping Network, in Parade magazine and at Curves, a national chain of gyms that caters to women.
The result: 79 percent of the audience was female, 74 percent was older than 25 and 38 percent was older than 40.
Lionsgate is confident that the movie — a coproduction with Lakeshore Entertainment — will continue to perform well next weekend. While Superbowl Sunday could keep some of "The Grey's" viewers away from the multiplex, it is unlikely to detract from "One for the Money."
"Certainly part of our decision on the release date was not only this weekend, where there just weren't a lot of female-driven films, but we also know our second weekend, we would be well-positioned. Historically, the films that work over Super Bowl weekend are female-skewed," David Spitz, Lionsgate's executive VP of domestic distribution, told TheWrap Sunday.
Like "The Grey," "One for the Money" received a "B-" Cinemascore. It had a budget of $42 million.
The new movie with the best Cinemascore is the one that performed the worst.
Summit's PG-13 rated "Man on a Ledge" took $8.3 million and had a Cinemascore of "B+."
The studio had projected that the movie would gross somewhere in the high single digits.
While "Man on a Ledge" had a budget of $42 million, Summit's exposure after tax incentives and foreign pre-sales is about $8.5 million.
The movie's audience was split evenly between men and women, though most of the audience was made up of young adults — 70 percent was younger than 35 and 56 percent was younger than 25.
"Man on a Ledge, directed by Asger Leth, stars Sam Worthington as an ex-cop-turned-fugitive who stands on the ledge of a high-rise building while a police negotiator, played by Elizabeth Banks, tries to talk him down. As the talks go on, the negotiator realizes the ex-cop may have an ulterior motive.
Richie Fay, Summit's president of domestic distribution said the "B+" Cinemascore is reflected in strong word-of-mouth. He noted that box office receipts increased by 43 percent on Saturday from Friday.
Oddly, Lionsgate debuted two new movies this week. Earlier this month, the company bought Summit, so "Man on a Ledge" and "One for the Money" belong to the same company.
By the time the purchase went through, it was too late to switch the release dates.
Internationally this weekend, New Line's "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" had a strong second weekend — dropping only about 10 percent over last week's debut.
The movie has grossed $24.2 million in eight countries, mostly in Asia. New Line clearly is hoping that the figure presages a strong opening weekend in the United States.
The movie, a sequel to the 2008 "Journey to the Center of the Earth," opens in the U.K. and Mexico on Feb. 3 and in the U.S. on Feb. 10.