By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Survival story "The Grey" starring Liam Neeson in a battle against weather and wolves led the box office pack with a better-than-expected $20 million in ticket sales over the weekend.
"The Grey" knocked last weekend's winner, "Underworld: Awakening," to second place. The vampire and werewolf sequel starring Kate Beckinsale brought in $12.5 million from Friday through Sunday at domestic theaters, according to studio estimates compiled by Reuters on Sunday.
In "The Grey," Neeson returns to an action role as a man who leads a team of plane crash survivors who must fight harsh weather and a fierce pack of wolves in the Alaskan wilderness.
The movie played at 3,185 North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters and earned a per-theater average of $6,279, according to the box office division of Hollywood.com.
Distributor Open Road Films acquired the film for about $5 million and had projected up to $12 million in debut weekend sales. The film beat that forecast because "it doesn't look like every other movie out there. In a crowded marketplace, I think it's important to be distinctive," said Open Road Films CEO Tom Ortenberg.
Katherine Heigl's new comedy, "One for the Money," finished in third place with $11.8 million, topping industry forecasts of less than $10 million for the film, which is based on a best-selling book by Janet Evanovich. Distributor Lions Gate Entertainment said readers who loved the book helped the movie beat expectations.
"We think the audience that showed up are not frequent moviegoers. They're just huge fans of Janet Evanovich," said David Spitz, head of domestic distribution for Lions Gate.
In the film, Heigl plays a cash-strapped woman who joins a bail-bond business and must track down a wanted man who happens to be an ex-boyfriend. Audiences surveyed by exit polling firm CinemaScore game the movie a B-minus on average.
The weekend's other new movie, crime drama "Man on a Ledge," landed in fifth place. The film was distributed by Lions Gate's newly acquired Summit Entertainment unit as release dates and marketing plans were set well before the studios combined earlier this month.
"Man on a Ledge" took in $8.3 million, within studio forecasts. The movie features "Avatar" star Sam Worthington as a fugitive who threatens to jump from a hotel ledge.
"Red Tails," a drama about black fighter pilots in World War Two, brought in $10.4 million to land in fourth place in its second weekend in theaters.
Also this weekend, a crop of films capitalized off last week's Oscar nominations.
"The Descendants," starring George Clooney as a father dealing with a family crisis, expanded to 2,001 theaters from 560 and gained 176 percent from last weekend. The movie took in $6.6 million, lifting its domestic tally to $58.5 million since its release last November. The movie has added $27 million in international markets for a worldwide total of $85.5 million.
Black-and-white silent film "The Artist" increased its weekend sales by 40 percent from a week earlier, bringing in $3.3 million after adding 235 more screens. To date, the film has grossed $16.7 million domestically.
Family film "Hugo," which led the Oscar nominations with 11, also jumped 143 percent to $2.3 million. Its total sales to date stand at $58.7 million domestically.
Open Road Films, a joint venture between theater owners Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Inc, released "The Grey." The film unit of Sony Corp distributed "Underworld: Awakening." "Red Tails" and "The Descendants" were released by divisions of News Corp's Fox Filmed Entertainment. Privately-held The Weinstein Co released "The Artist," and Viacom Inc unit Paramount Pictures distributed "Hugo."
(Reporting By Lisa Richwine; Editing by Xavier Briand and Bill Trott)
(This story corrects spelling of Ortenberg in paragraph 5)