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‘Haunted House’ Key in ‘Gangster Squad,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Battle

Warner Bros.’ period mob drama 'Gangster Squad' takes on a slew of Oscar nominees, but the horror spoof is a box-office wild card this weekend


Best Picture Oscar nominee “Zero Dark Thirty” goes nationwide and the controversial “Gangster Squad” debuts Friday, but the opening of the horror spoof "Haunted House" will have a lot to do with who wins the weekend box-office.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden will get a boost from Thursday’s Oscar honors, and it has been going gangbusters in limited release. Critical raves, awards and the political firestorm surrounding the film’s take on torture have kept it the headlines, and last weekend “Zero Dark Thirty” averaged more than $48,000 per location, after expanding to 60 theaters following its five-screen debut on Dec. 21.

Sony has it in 2,400 locations and industry analysts see it coming in at around $22 million for the weekend. Warner Bros.’ star-studded “Gangster Squad,” on more than 3,000 screens, is tracking just behind it at around $20 million.

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Distributor Open Road Films has the Marlon Wayans comedy  “Haunted House” on 2,160 screens and the numbers point to a weekend of around $18 million, analysts say, based to a large extent on strong interest among African Americans. Spoofs miss more often than they hit, but we’re one week removed from “Texas Chainsaw 3D” taking the top box-office spot. If that crowd feels like laughing and if African-American audiences turn out in force to see Wayans — who wrote the first two “Scary Movie” films — it could go higher.

If that’s the case, it will likely be bad news for “Gangster Squad,” which has featured the film's hip-hop music score in its marketing campaign in a bid to connect with a broad audience. The lower screen-count for "Haunted House" will work against it, but regardless of the order of the top finishers, it's a good bet that the three R-rated films will top the box office this weekend.

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

Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) directs and is a producer, along with Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick and Michael Tadross, on the picture from Langley Park Productions, Lin Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures.

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.”

Since then, the Newtown, Conn., school shootings have spurred another round of questions surrounding Hollywood and violent material, but Warner Bros. decided against another date change.

"I think there’s a separation between what happened in Newtown and a stylized period piece like ‘Gangster Squad,’” BoxOffice.com vice-president and senior analyst Phil Contrino told TheWrap. “I don’t think many people will connect the two.”

“Haunted House” is a send-up of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise and the found-footage horror genre from Wayans, who wrote and stars in the film along with Essence Atkins, Marlene Forte and Cedric the Entertainer. Michael Tiddes directs.

It is looking very strong on Facebook, with about 383,000 likes. That’s well ahead of the roughly 275,000 likes that “The Devil Inside” — one of the films “Haunted House” spoofs — generated prior to its release in January last year, according to BoxOffice.com, and that film opened to $33 million.

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Along with Wayans Brothers Entertainment, IM Global’s Octane genre label financed and produced the very low-budget movie, which was acquired by Open Road in September.

Horror films typically see drop-offs in the 60 percent range in their second weeks and that’s expected to be the case with Lionsgate’s “Texas Chainsaw 3D.” Paramount’s Tom Cruise action film “Jack Reacher has had steady business since opening three weeks ago, but it could also take a  big hit this week, with direct competition from “Gangster Squad” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

With the Academy releasing its Oscar nominations on Thursday, rather than Tuesday, there was no time for studios to add last-minute screens for the nominated films as they have in past years. The theaters were forced to place their bets on the front runners like "Zero Dark Thirty" early on. "Lincoln' weeks ago set a small expansion for this weekend, and after Sunday's Golden Globes may do it again next week.

That’s the Martin Luther King holiday weekend and the Weinstein Company is waiting until then to go wide with “Silver Linings Playbook,’ another of the Best Picture nominees. It will remain in 745 theaters this week before expanding to 2,500 on Jan. 18.

On the specialty front, Weinstein is rolling out the comedy “Quartet," Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut, on two screens. Maggie Smith, Billy Connelly and Michael Gambon star in the tale set in a home for retired opera singers, where the annual Verdi birthday concert is disrupted by the arrival of the diva-esque former wife (Smith) of one of the residents.