Box Office Report: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Beating 'Gangster Squad' for No. 1

Wilson Webb/Warner Bros.

The controversial film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is generating strong numbers as it expands nationwide a day after earning an Academy Award nomination for best picture.

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is beating period mob pic Gangster Squad at the Friday box office, opening up the possibility of a weekend victory for the controversial film.

Box-office observers say Zero Dark Thirty -- about the decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden -- could gross $23 million to $24 million for the weekend, if not more. The movie, which has been playing in a limited run since Dec. 19, earned five Oscar nominations Thursday, including one for best picture.

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Gangster Squad, from Warner Bros., is projected to open in the low-$20 million range based on Friday matinee business, in line with expectations. Heading into the weekend, observers predicted a close race between the two films.

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

Receiving the top Academy Award nom greatly can improve a film's fortunes if the timing is right, and that's why Sony waited until now to unleash Zero Dark Thirty nationwide, even as some Washington lawmakers take the film to task for suggesting that torture played a key role in tracking down bin Laden.

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To boot, the Golden Globes ceremony is Sunday night, and Zero Dark Thirty is up for best motion picture drama.

Zero Dark Thirty, financed and produced by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, was penned by Mark Boal, who also teamed with Bigelow on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker.

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 $12 million to $15 million range. IM Global financed and produced.