'The Grey' Tops Weekend Box Office

By Jake Coyle

NEW YORK -- Beware the Liam in Winter. Liam Neeson's The Grey topped the weekend box office with $20 million, according to studio estimates Sunday, continuing the actor's success as an action star in the winter months.

The Alaskan survivalist thriller opened above expectations with a performance on par with previous Neeson thrillers Taken and Unknown. Those films, both January-February releases, opened with $24.7 million and $21.9 million, respectively.

But the R-rated The Grey, which has received good reviews, drove home the strong appeal of Neeson, action star. It's an unlikely turn for the 59-year-old Neeson, previously better known for his dramatic performances, like those in Schindler's List and Kinsey.

"Liam is a true movie star, period," said Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films. It's the second release for the newly formed distributor, created by theater chains AMC and Regal.

"My guess is that Liam Neeson in action thrillers would work just about any time of year."

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January is often a dumping ground for less-stellar releases, a tradition held up by two badly reviewed new wide releases: Man on a Ledge, with Sam Worthington, and One for the Money with Katherine Heigl.

One for the Money fared better, earning $11.8 million, while Man on a Ledge opened with $8.3 million.

Those were reasonably solid returns, and, in an unusual twist, were both ultimately for Lions Gate Entertainment ( LGF).

Its film studio, Lionsgate, released the romantic comedy One for the Money. The action thriller Man on a Ledge was released by Summit Entertainment, which Lions Gate bought for $412.5 million earlier this month.

One for the Money was helped by a promotion with Groupon ( GRPN), the Internet discount site, with which Lionsgate previously partnered for The Lincoln Lawyer. David Spitz, head of distribution for Lionsgate, said the large number of older, female subscribers of Groupon matched well with the audience of One for the Money.

Groupon email blasts, he said, had a significant promotional effect.

Last week's box-office leader, Underworld: Awakenings, Sony's ( SNE) Screen Gem's latest installment in its vampire series, came in second with $12.5 million, bringing its cumulative total to $45.1 million.

The unexpectedly large haul for The Grey, strong holdovers (such as the George Lucas-produced World War II action film Red Tails, which earned $10.4 million in its second week) and the bump for Oscar contending films following Tuesday's nominations added up to a good weekend for Hollywood. The box office was up about 15% on the corresponding weekend last year.

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