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Box Office Preview: Will Liam Neeson's 'The Grey' Steal the Show?

The Grey Liam Neeson with hikers - H 2012
Open Roads Film

The action pic opens against Summit thriller "Man on a Ledge" and Lionsgate's Katherine Heigl action-comedy "One for the Money"; award contenders "The Artist" and "The Descendants" make major expansions.

Action and thrill seekers will be in hot demand at the domestic box office this weekend as Liam Neeson starrer The Grey opens against Sam Worthington-Elizabeth Banks starrer Man on a Ledge and Katherine Heigl's One for the Money.

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Billed as an action-thriller, The Grey has picked up steam in recent days and could win the weekend. Tom Ortenberg's Open Road Films is distributing the Joe Carnahan-directed pic, which cost $25 million to produce.

The Grey, also starring Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney, is about a group of men stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash. Open Road is counting on Neeson's relatively new-found status as an action star-- Taken and Unknown turned into box office hits--to lure moviegoers.

Open Road is predicting a $10 million to $12 million opening for The Grey, but most box office observers believe it could do more based on good word of mouth and strong reviews. That's why some believe it will bet holdover Underworld: Awakening, which debuted to $25.3 million last weekend (the Awakening films tend to see sizeable drop offs).

The Grey was produced by Liddell Entertainment and Scott Free Productions.

Also billed as an action-thriller, Summit Entertainment's Man on a Ledge, starring Sam Worthington and Elizabeth Banks, is tracking evenly among male and female moviegoers in the 18 year old to 49 year old range. The film, however, is drawing poor reviews.

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Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradin produced Man on a Ledge, about a hard-living police negotiator (Banks) who tries to talk down an ex-cop and fugitive (Worthington) who is standing on the ledge of a New York high-rise. Tracking suggest the film, directed by Asger Leth, will open in the $8 to $10 million range.

One for the Money, from Lionsgate and Lakeshore Entertainment, is touted as an action-comedy. The film, costing roughly $42 million, is based on the popular Stephanie Plum detective novels by author Janet Evanovich. Lakeshore and Lionsgate are partners on the film, and have limited financial exposure since foreign presales covered much of the budget.

Projections show One for the Money opening in the $6 million to $8 million range. 

One twist--Lionsgate and Summit dated Man on a Ledge and One for the Money long before Lionsgate bought Summit (the marriage was consumated earlier this month). Normally, one company wouldn't date two films on the same weekend.

One for the Money, which wasn't screened for critics, is offering reduced ticket prices via Groupon, while Man on a Ledge is offering discounts via Living Social.

The awards box office will be extra busy this weekend as films try to parlay top Oscar nominations into added attention (the noms were announced on Tuesday).

Best picture nominee The Descendants, from Fox Searchlight, aggressively expands from 560 locations to 1,997. Directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney, the film has grossed $52 million at the domestic box office.

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Paramount is adding roughly 300 theaters to Hugo's run for a total location count of 965. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Hugo scored 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any film, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay (John Logan). The pic has grossed $56.3 million to date domestically.

The Artist, which received 10 top Oscar nominations, also ups its profile, moving into a total of 897 theaters. From the Weinstein Co., the awards frontrunner has grossed $13.1 million to date, but has only been playing in a small number of theaters, whereas Descendants and Hugo are adding back runs.

Warner Bros.' best picture contender Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close also is poised to benefit, since it only expanded nationwide last weeked after playing in six theaters since Christmas Day. The film has earned $13.2 million domestically.

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Films scoring acting nominations also will try to score attention, including Roadside Attraction's Glen Close starrer Albert Nobbs, which has only been played so far in a qualifying run. This weekend, the film moves into a total of 246 theaters (Close was nominated for best actress).

Although it isn't expanding, Focus Features and Working Title's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could benefit from Gary Oldman's nomination for best actor. The specialty pic has turned into an arthouse hit, grossing nearly $20 million to date. The Weinstein Co.'s The Iron Lady, earning Meryl Streep a best actress nomination and grossing $13.9 million to date, likewise could benefit this weekend.

Sony Pictures Classics' A Separation, nominated for best foreign language film, and IFC/Sundance Select's Pina, nominated for best documentary and directed by Wim Wenders, also could see an uptick.