Zero Dark Thirty: Controversy boosts weekend box office
Familiarity may breed contempt (if you're around the wrong person), but controversy surely breeds box office sales (if said controversy takes place at the time of the film's release). Blasted by Righteous U.S. congressmen and women, by CIA honchos (who always tell the truth, we know that), by Liberals Martin Sheen and Ed Asner, just a few days ago the Kathryn Bigelow-directed, Mark Boal-scripted Zero Dark Thirty was bypassed for a key Oscar 2013 category – Best Director. As a result, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was blasted by just about everybody, from those calling Academy members sexist to rabid right-wingers claiming that Hollywood Liberals have come up with an anti-torture blacklist. (As if that per se would be such a bad thing.) Adding fuel to the fire, Michael Moore, no stranger to controversy, took to Twitter to defend both Zero Dark Thirty and Kathryn Bigelow. (Image: Jessica Chastain as Maya in the controversy-enmeshed Zero Dark Thirty.)
Now, considering all the outraged attacks and equally outraged defenses, why should anyone be surprised if Zero Dark Thirty, a (fictionalized) take on “classified” documentation about the U.S. government's hunt for Osama bin Laden, far surpasses new entries Gangster Squad and A Haunted House this weekend at the North American box office? Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, and Sean Penn, Gangster Squad is expected to open with about $18 million, followed by the the latest critically lambasted Marlon Wayans' atrocity, which should take in approximately $17 million. For its part, Zero Dark Thirty is expected to score a solid $25 million by Sunday evening after having expanded to 2,937 locations on Friday.
Box office: Controversy sells
Throughout the decades, controversy has helped the box office take of movies as disparate as Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Suddenly Last Summer (homosexuality, cannibalism, lobotomy, incest, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift), Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (righteous cop Sidney Poitier slapping racist white man, Rod Steiger chewing gum), Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (demon child, kinky sex, devil worshiper Ruth Gordon, demon baby's mom Mia Farrow), John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (homosexuality, blow job, “X” rating, Best Picture Oscar, sex worker Jon Voight, crippled derelict Dustin Hoffman), Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (heterosexuality, anal sex, Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider), Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat (the title says it all, Linda Lovelace, heterosexuality), Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (nasty Allen-Mia Farrow scandal).
Ah, and let's not forget Michael Moore's own anti-George W. Bush, anti-Iraq War, anti-U.S. media Fahrenheit 9/11, by far the most financially successful documentary in history. So, why should Zero Dark Thirty and the torture-porn accusations lead to different results?
Zero Dark Thirty distributor Sony Pictures (claims it) is expecting the aforementioned $25 million for the three-day weekend, though Bigelow's political thriller may end up anywhere between $24-27 million. Either way, Zero Dark Thirty will have grossed more on its first wide-release weekend than the previous Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal collaboration, the 2009 Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, earned during its entire domestic run: $17.01 million.
Jessica Chastain Zero Dark Thirty photo: Columbia Pictures.
Zero Dark Thirty vs. Black Hawk Down: Box office
The not-so-good news: A less flattering comparison pits Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty against Ridley Scott's brainless, action-packed, war-as-a-videogame 2001 hit Black Hawk Down, which took in $28.61 million on its first weekend in wide release in mid-January 2002, according to data found at Box Office Mojo. In 2013 dollars, that would represent approximately $38 million. (Image: Kathryn Bigelow's Hunt for Osama bin Laden movie Zero Dark Thirty.)
Featuring Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, and William Fichtner as U.S. military personnel stranded in Somalia, Black Hawk Down went on to gross $108.63 million in North America, in addition to a considerably more modest $64.35 million overseas. Relatively speaking, Zero Dark Thirty should follow a similar pattern: major interest in the United States; moderate interest (chiefly because of the Oscar buzz) to “who cares” elsewhere.
Of note: Black Hawk Down did get a Best Director Oscar nomination and three other nods, but not Best Picture. Zero Dark Thirty is up for Best Picture and is in the running in four other categories, but, as mentioned above, Best Director is not one of them.
The Hurt Locker international box office
I should add that The Hurt Locker collected $32.21 million outside North America – or about $15 million over its domestic cume. That international figure, however, had little to do with non-American moviegoers' interest in the Iraq War experiences of American troops. Instead, it had a lot to do with the film's Oscar buzz, as The Hurt Locker opened in most overseas territories in late 2009 / early 2010. Also worth noting is that the film earned more than 50 percent of its total international gross in only three territories: Japan, Australia, and Spain, where it opened between April/June 2010. And Oscar or no, The Hurt Locker still bombed in several major markets, including Italy, Brazil, Russia, the UK (where it opened in Sept. 2009), and Germany.
As of last Sunday, Zero Dark Thirty had collected $1.3 million at 232 Spanish screens – then its sole international opening. That's a solid debut, approximately $5,600 per theater, though hardly a phenomenal one as some publications have claimed. After all, a year ago Meryl Streep's The Iron Lady averaged $7,305 at 208 locations. The Iron Lady ended up at no. 36 on Spain's 2012 box office chart.
Official weekend box office estimates will be released Sunday morning. Weekend box office actuals come out on Monday.
Jessica Chastain toplines Zero Dark Thirty cast
Zero Dark Thirty stars Best Actress Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Edgar Ramírez, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Frank Grillo, and Stephen Dillane.
Kathryn Bigelow's Hunt for Osama bin Laden movie Zero Dark Thirty photo: Columbia Pictures.