LOS ANGELES - "Zero Dark Thirty" hunted down the top spot at the box office — and easily won it.
Open Road Films' horror parody "A Haunted House" starring Marlon Wayans debuted in second place with a solid $18.8 million. The Warner Bros. mobster drama "Gangster Squad," starring Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling as off-the-books police officers battling a mob boss played by Sean Penn, opened below expectations in third place with $16.7 million.
After earning Oscar nominations last week, several Academy Awards contenders benefited at the box office. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved up the unveiling of the Oscar nominations to Thursday, three days ahead of Sunday's Golden Globes, Hollywood's second-biggest awards ceremony organized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
"The timing is great because there are a host of these awards contenders still out there," said Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst at Hollywood.com. " 'Django Unchained,' 'Les Miserables,' 'Lincoln,' 'Silver Linings Playbook' and a few others are still out there. Which movies win tonight at the Golden Globes will definitely receive a boost going forward."
At the Golden Globes, "Zero Dark Thirty" will be up against "Argo," ''Django Unchained," ''Life of Pi" and "Lincoln" in the best motion picture drama category. It's also competing against those films for the best picture prize at the Oscars ceremony Feb. 24, as well as "Amour," ''Beasts of the Southern Wild," ''Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook."
Controversies surrounding "Zero Dark Thirty," which depicts waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, may have helped create buzz for the film. Several lawmakers accused the CIA of misleading "Zero Dark Thirty" filmmakers by allegedly telling them such interrogation methods helped track down terrorist mastermind bin Laden in 2011.
"There are so many facets of 'Zero Dark Thirty' that have created interest in it," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony. "Ultimately, it's a great film. That's the piece that you really need to have to get this great of a result. I think it's a film that's not only going to do well in the marketplace but also be talked about for years to come."
The weekend's third-place finisher, "Gangster Squad," similarly attracted controversy in 2012 after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater left 12 dead. Warner Bros. pulled the movie's trailer and delayed the release out of sensitivity because the film originally featured a scene with mobsters ruthlessly shooting into a movie theater audience.
The entire sequence featuring Brolin's character being ambushed inside famed Hollywood movie palace Grauman's Chinese Theater was removed from "Gangster Squad" and replaced with a new scene, which cost millions of dollars to reshoot, set in Los Angeles' Chinatown neighborhood. The rest of the film's many bullet-ridden Tommy gun battles remained intact.
"There's nothing that indicates violence was an issue," said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. general sales manager. "I don't think that's the case here. The exit polling tells us that people liked what they saw in 'Gangster Squad.' I think we'll have a nice hold going into the holiday weekend where people will be more available and have more leisure time."
Overall business this weekend came in at $142 million, up more than 7 percent from the same period in 2012, when the Mark Wahlberg thriller "Contraband" led the box office with $24.3 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. It marks the third strong weekend for Hollywood after seven consecutive weekends when business was down over the same period the previous year.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "Zero Dark Thirty," $24 million.
2. "A Haunted House," $18.8 million.
3. "Gangster Squad," $16.7 million.
4. "Django Unchained," $11 million.
5. "Les Miserables," $10.1 million.
6. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," $9 million.
7. "Lincoln," $6.3 million.
8. "Parental Guidance," $6.1 million.
9. "Texas Chainsaw 3-D," $5.1 million.
10. "Silver Linings Playbook," $5 million.