On Oscar weekend, the real-life action stars of "Act of Valor" bested Hollywood's pretend heroes.
The Relativity Media action flick, starring real, active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs, topped the weekend box office, earning $24.7 million according to studio estimates Sunday. That was a strong opening for a unique film made in collaboration with the Navy, which sought to demonstrate the skill and bravery of the SEALs without Hollywood imitation.
"How often can you repeat the same heroes that are big stars pretending to be heroes?" said Kyle Davies, president of worldwide distribution for Relativity. "I think moviegoers are ready for a new, fresh experience."
"Act of Valor" led another strong weekend at the box office, as it was up 24.4 percent over the corresponding weekend last year. Attendance this year is up 20.4 percent, a surge that hasn't been driven by Academy Awards contenders but by new films in a traditionally tepid movie-going season.
"The newcomers this year have just been igniting the box office," said Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Hollywood.com. "It's a very competitive marketplace for both the Oscar contenders and the newcomers."
Lionsgate's "Tyler Perry's Good Deeds," a more dramatic offering for the consistently popular Perry, opened with a healthy $16 million. Its audience was resoundingly female (76 percent) and may have been slightly diminished by the appeal of Denzel Washington in the thriller "Safe House." That earned $11.4 million, bringing its cumulative total to $98.1 million.
The weekend's other new releases — the thriller "Gone" and the comedy "Wanderlust" — had weaker debuts. The latter, a comedy with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, earned $6.6 million. "Gone," starring Amanda Seyfried, took in $5 million.
In their third week of release, Sony's romantic drama "The Vow" and Warner Bros.' family film "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" padded their totals. "Journey" added $13.5 million for a total of $76.7 million, while" The Vow" added $10 million more for a cumulative $103 million.
The success of "Act of Valor" validated an unusual strategy for Relativity, a production company that began distributing movies in 2010.
Relativity purchased the film, independently produced by the Bandito Brothers, for $13 million. It stoked interest through more than 400 advance screenings and a robust TV ad campaign that included Super Bowl commercials. Its marketing budget was reportedly approximately $30 million.
Though the film garnered poor reviews, audiences gave it an "A," according to CinemaScore. It has resonated with males, who made up 71 percent of the audience.
Internationally, the film, which plays much as patriotic propaganda, may face a stiffer challenge. It will open in foreign markets in future weeks, distributed by Film Nation.
Davies said the film was a "question mark" going into the weekend because of a lack of comparative films, but added that he's "optimistic" about its global prospects.
"In the same way we just didn't know what was going to happen domestically, it's still a bit of a mystery," said Davies. "You would think because it's very much an American story, there won't be the same level of interest. But I think at the end of the day, if a movie delivers on an entertainment quotient, then that's the most important factor."
Ahead of Sunday night's Academy Awards, no Oscar-contender finished in the top 10. Most of the favorites have been playing for weeks, if not months.
The Weinstein Co.'s "The Artist," the silent film ode and best picture favorite, is the only top award nominee still expanding its market. The film, which had a very slow rollout, added 158 theaters this weekend.
In its 14th week, it earned $3 million to bring its total to $31.9 million.
"Not a lot of people have seen it, so there's a lot of room left for 'The Artist' to add box office," said Dergarabedian. "'The Artist' has a lot to gain from (Sunday's) telecast."
Fox Searchlight's Oscar-nominated "The Descendants," in its 15th week, took in $2.2 million, raising its total to $78.5 million. Paramount's "Hugo" added $1.6 million to bring its haul to $69.4 million.
Disney's "The Help" remained, by far, the most popular best picture nominee at the box office, with a total of $169.7 million.
But on its biggest night, Hollywood can celebrate its strong theatrical business after a sluggish end to 2011 spurred much hand-wringing about the future of movie-going.
"It's fantastic," said David Spitz, head of worldwide distribution of Lionsgate. "It seems like it's cyclical, where everyone starts saying, 'Well, admissions are down.' Then all of sudden, (they're up). ... It certainly bodes well for this year."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "Act of Valor," $24.7 million.
2. "Tyler Perry's Good Deeds," $16 million.
3. "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," $13.5 million.
4. "Safe House," $11.4 million.
5. "The Vow," $10 million.
6. "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," $8.8 million.
7. "This Means War," $8.5 million.
8. "Wanderlust," $6.6 million.
9. "Gone," $5 million.
10. "The Secret World of Arrietty," $4.5 million.