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Zero Dark Thirty Controversy Sells

Zero Dark Thirty movie Jessica Chastain
Zero Dark Thirty controversy: Jessica Chastain stars in Kathryn Bigelow’s political thriller.

Zero Dark Thirty movie box office: Controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow real-life-inspired thriller likely boosted its commercial appeal

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

*Jan. 11–13 weekend box office: Familiarity may breed contempt (if you’re around the wrong person), but controversy can and often does breed box office success – if said controversy takes place at the time of a movie’s release. As expected, Kathryn Bigelow’s passionately criticized/defended political thriller Zero Dark Thirty easily topped the North American (U.S. and Canada only) box office chart, grossing a respectable $24.4 million after expanding from 60 to 2,937 theaters, as per final studio figures found at

Here’s a little backstory:

Blasted by righteous U.S. congressmen and women, by CIA honchos (who always tell the truth, no matter what), and by Liberal actors Martin Sheen and Edward Asner, just a few days ago the Kathryn Bigelow-directed, Mark Boal-scripted thriller 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 foaming-at-the-mouth 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.

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, should have easily beaten brand new entries A Haunted House and Gangster Squad?

*Directed by Michael Tiddes, the latest critically lambasted Marlon Wayans something-or-other, A Haunted House (actually, a horror satire), took in $18.1 million. Directed by Ruben Fleischer, Gangster Squad opened with $17.1 million; Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, and two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn (Mystic River, 2003; Milk, 2008) star.

Box office: Controversy sells

Throughout the decades, controversy has helped the box office take of movies as disparate as:

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 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 million.

Comparison to Black Hawk Down

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 $28.6 million on its first weekend in wide release in mid-January 2002. 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 $108.6 million in North America, in addition to a far more modest $64.4 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 $32.2 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 U.K. (where it opened in September 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.

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.

Jessica Chastain Zero Dark Thirty movie image: Columbia Pictures.

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