‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Turns Political Firestorm Into $24M Box-Office Triumph

"Zero Dark Thirty," fueled by controversy over its portrayal of torture and 5 Oscar nominations, tops box office in nationwide debut

“Zero Dark Thirty,” fueled by a firestorm of criticism and five Academy Award nominations, captured the top spot at the domestic box office Sunday with $24 million in its nationwide expansion over the weekend.

It easily beat out the weekend’s two debuting movies, the horror spoof “A Haunted House," which finished second with $18.8 million, and Warner Bros.’ star-studded “Gangster Squad,” which was third with a disappointing $16.7 million.

Kathryn Bigelow’s tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been an awards and critical favorite, but has been pilloried by politicians and others who claim that the film portrays torture as being an effective tool in the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.

Also read: 'Outraged' Amy Pascal: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Does Not Advocate Torture

The box office success of “Zero Dark Thirty” can be seen as a measure of vindication for Bigelow, writer Mark Boal and Sony executives, who have staunchly defended the film's portrayal of the U.S. government's pursuit of the al-Qaeda leader as accurate. Audiences' embrace of the film — they gave it an "A-" CinemaScore — must be gratifying for Bigelow, who was snubbed for a Best Director Oscar nod despite the film's five nominations, including Best Picture.

“The controversy surrounding this film is absolutely helping it,” Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations told TheWrap. “It’s turning into a red and blue state movie, because it’s been so in the news, that people want to see it so they can form their own opinion.”

Sony Pictures spokesman Steve Elzer agreed.

“The film has triggered an enormous amount of off-entertainment page media coverage and inspired a national conversation,” he told TheWrap Sunday morning. “It is the movie of the moment and there have been just as many supporters as there have been critics weighing in on some of these subjects.

"Yes, the controversy has created a higher profile for the film but almost all of those pieces mention the outstanding reviews and awards pedigree, so the message consumers are receiving is that the film is great and it is important — worthy of conversation and debate.”

"Zero Dark Thirty" played particularly strongly in the Washington, D.C. area, where much of the criticism of the film has come from. Two of the three top-grossing screens on Friday and Saturday were in McLean and Alexandria, Va.

Also read: Megan Ellison: Kathryn Bigelow 'Robbed' By Oscar Voters (Exclusive)

Analysts had projected a weekend in the $22 million range for the thriller from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. It was on 2,937 screens, up from 60 last week. Audiences were 59 percent male and 38 percent under 30 years of age. It averaged $8,172 per location.

A strong turnout from African-Americans and Latino moviegoers helped propel the second-place finish of “A Haunted House,” a send-up of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise and the found-footage horror genre. African Americans accounted for 48 percent of the film's audience, Latinos 30 percent. Fifty-eight percent were women.

The success of the low-budget film is a coup for distributor Open Road Films, Wayans Brothers Entertainment and IM Global’s Octane genre label, which financed and produced it.

"We picked what turned out to be a great date for us," Jason Cassidy, Open Road's marketing president, told TheWrap Sunday. "There hadn't been an outrageous comedy in the market for some time, and there was pent-up demand."

He said that the film's success had a lot to do with the efforts of Marlon Wayans, who wrote and starred in the film. "He was everywhere before the opening, and it's nice to see his efforts and the work of everyone involved pay off."

IM Global had pushed the film into profitability via pre-sales last year at Cannes, where the name of Wayans, who wrote the first two "Scary Movie" spoofs, still resonates with many foreign distributors.

Warner Bros. and analysts, who had projected a $20 million first weekend, expected more from "Gangster Squad," which was hurt by the strong "Haunted House' showing.

Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Sean Penn star in the violent period drama about the Los Angeles Police Department’s battle with mobster Mickey Cohen for control of the city in the 1940s. 

It was to have opened in September, but Warner Bros. pushed it to January in the wake of the July theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., which occurred at a midnight screening of another of the studio’s films, “Dark Knight Rises.” A scene involving a shooting at a movie theater was cut from “Gangster Squad.”

Audiences, which were split evenly between male and female and were 58 percent under 35 years old, gave it a “B+” CinemaScore.

"Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables," which also received Best Picture Oscar nominations Thursday, finished fourth and fifth. Quentin Tarantino's slave saga took in $11 million from 3,012 theaters for the Weinstein Company. Universal's musical took in $10.1 million from 2,927 screens over the three days. That’s a 42 percent drop from last week for “Django,” 37 percent for “Les Miz.”

Two other Best Picture nominees, "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook," got a box-office boost from Thursday's announcement. Disney upped its screen count on the DreamWorks historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg by 126 locations to 2,027 and brought in $6.3 million. That’s a 16 percent increase from last week and raised the overall domestic total for the film, which led the Oscar nominations with 12 nods, to $152 million.

The Weinstein Company's dark comedy "Silver Linings Playbook," starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, took in $5 million — a 42 percent jump from last week — after adding 65 screens for a total of 810. Weinstein plans to go nationwide with the film for the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend on Jan. 18.

Fox' is also targeting next weekend for its expansion of Best Picture nominee "Life of Pi." Ang Lee's lyrical epic brought in $2.5 million from 767 locations. Its domestic total now stands at $94.7 million.

Warner Bros.' "Argo,” another Best Picture nominee, was up 55 percent from last week after adding 319 theaters. It took in $1.2 million from 621 locations for the weekend. Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage thriller is in its 14th week of release and has an overall domestic total of $111.6 million.

Last weekend's No. 1 film, "Texas Chainsaw 3D" from Lionsgate, took a tumble. It brought in $5.1 million, more than 76 percent off from last week.