Box Office Preview: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Eyes Oscar Boost, Expands Nationwide

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain Soldiers - H 2012

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain Soldiers - H 2012

Kathryn Bigelow's controversial movie is among a handful of award contenders hoping to benefit from top Academy Award nominations; new openings this weekend are "Gangster Squad" and "A Haunted House."

Political thriller Zero Dark Thirty faces a crucial test as it expands nationwide Friday, one day after landing an Oscar nomination for best picture.

Receiving the top Academy Award nom can greatly improve a film's fortunes if the timing is right, and that's why Sony waited until now to unleash the movie across the country. To boot, the Golden Globes ceremony is Sunday night, and Zero Dark Thirty is up for best motion picture in the drama category.

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From filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty has prospered in select cities since its Dec. 19 debut, even as it draws the ire of influential Capitol Hill lawmakers for suggesting that torture played a key role in tracking down Osama bin Laden. To date, it has earned $5.2 million.

The film picked up a total of five Oscar nominations on Thursday, though Bigelow was shut out of the director's race. (She won three years ago for The Hurt Locker.)

Zero Dark Thirty's biggest competition at the box office will be Warner Bros.' star-studded period mobster pic Gangster Squad, which opens Friday. Box-office observers expect both movies to gross in the $20 million range, give or take.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer, Gangster Squad revolves around a special task force formed by the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1940s to fight mobsters. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Michael Pena and Emma Stone star.

The film's release was postponed from September in the wake of the Colorado theater shooting in July because of a scene in Gangster Squad that depicts gunfire in a movie theater; that scene has been deleted from the film.

Also opening Friday is A Haunted House. The horror spoof, a parody of the Paranormal Activity franchise, stars Marlon Wayans. Open Road Films is distributing the movie, which should open in the $15 million range.

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Among other Oscar-nominated films, Amour also stands to gain from landing in the best picture category. The Sony Pictures Classics release, earning $340,798 to date, will expand beyond New York and Los Angeles this weekend into a handful of cities including Chicago and San Francisco.

Harvey Weinstein made a calculated decision at the eleventh hour to postpone Silver Linings Playbook's nationwide debut from November to January in order to ride the awards wave. Playing now in roughly 750 theaters, the film has grossed $35.7 million to date. On Jan. 18, Silver Linings will make its biggest move yet, as it ups its location count to about 2,500 screens.

Outside of Zero Dark Thirty, Amour and Silver Linings Playbook, most of the best picture contenders are well into their box-office runs.

In terms of sheer grosses, best picture contender Life of Pi leads the way with a worldwide total of more than $415 million, including $324 million internationally.

Lincoln -- which has 12 nominations, the most of any film -- has earned $145.5 million to date domestically, the highest of any contender. The historical drama begins rolling out overseas later this month.

Les Miserables has grossed $188.7 million worldwide, followed by Argo with $166.3 million. Argo, which opened in October, will up its theater count from 300 to roughly 600 this weekend.

Django Unchained -- which, like Lincoln, has yet to roll out overseas -- has grossed $112.5 million in North America.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the only title among the best picture candidates that is out on DVD, though Fox Searchlight might bring the film back into theaters.