Liam Neeson had to fight off more than just Arctic wolves this weekend; he also had to face the fearsome power of online group discounts. Nonetheless, Neeson's new chilly thriller, "The Grey," managed to debut atop the box office chart and earn as much as the next two new releases combined. Not too shabby, considering that both "One for the Money" and "Man on a Ledge" offered viewers discounted tickets through Groupon and Living Social, respectively.

Neeson has become a bankable action star lately ("Taken," "Unknown"), despite his rapidly approaching 60th birthday. Nonetheless, expecations for "The Grey" were modest (in the $14 to $18 million range), thanks to its R rating and its rookie distributor (Open Road, whose only previous film was last fall's underwhelming "Killer Elite"). Still, reviews were generally good, which means a lot to the older audiences that have made Neeson's recent bonecrunchers into hits. So the movie outperformed expectations and scared up an estimated $20.0 million. For the third consecutive winter, Neeson seems to own the frozen wasteland that is January and February moviegoing.

Last week's winner, "Underworld Awakening," slipped to second place with an estimated take of $12.5 million. That's a 51 percent drop from last week's business, which is not unusual for a big action blockbuster. Considering how thoroughly saturated the action market is this weekend (7 of the top 10 movies and 10 of the top 20 movies qualify), "Underworld" is actually holding up pretty well. Its total to date comes to $45.1 million.

Opening in third place, "One for the Money" debuted with an estimated $11.8 million, at the upper end of the $9 to $12 million range of pundits' predictions. Despite being based on a popular series of Janet Evanovich crime novels, expectations were modest, since the movie featured Katherine Heigl (a waning box office draw) stretching beyond romantic comedy, and since the film wasn't screened for critics (never a good sign). The Groupon experiment may have helped, however. Discounted tickets were offered for $6, which Groupon misleadingly touted as a 60 percent savings (only true if your tickets usually cost $15; the national average is about $8). It's not clear how many people bought the tickets -- the online coupon site indicated only that it sold more than 100,000 of them, which is pretty good. The first time Groupon tried this gambit, with last year's "The Lincoln Lawyer," it sold 200,000 tickets, but it wasn't competing against a similar simultaneous promotion involving another online coupon site selling discounted tickets.

LIke "Underworld," "Red Tails" lost about half (45 percent) of its first-week business, sliding two slots to fourth place with an estimated $10.4 million. Still, George Lucas's World War II aerial adventure has very strong word-of-mouth, so it could show some staying presence amid the current surplus of action movies. So far, it's earned $33.8 million.

Premiering at No. 5, crime drama "Man on a Ledge" opened with an estimated $8.3 million, which is about in the middle of the range of pre-weekend expectations ($7 to $10 million). Despite his starring roles in such hits as "Avatar," "Terminator Salvation," and "Clash of the Titans," Sam Worthington is not considered a box office draw (really, did you buy a ticket for any of those films because he was in them?). The Living Social promotion may have helped, but not much; the site says it sold just under 12,000 tickets. (Like Groupon, Living Social claimed the $6 discount price was saving you a lot of money, 54 percent, which is true only if your tickets usually cost $13.)

Several movies sought to take advantage of the so-called Oscar bounce from Tuesday's Academy Award nominations. "The Descendants," which has been in theaters for nearly three months, expanded from 560 theaters to 2,001 and saw business boosted 176 percent from last week, to an estimated $6.6 million, good for seventh place. Fellow Best Picture nominee "The Artist" added 235 theaters (for a total of 897) and saw business rise 40 percent, to an estimated $3.3 million, finishing at No. 12 for the weekend. "The Iron Lady" added 168 venues (for a total of 1,244), but it lost business (13 percent) and finished at No. 14 with an estimated $3.2 million. At No. 16, "Hugo" added 315 screens (for a total of 965) and was rewarded with a 143 percent boost to $2.3 million. And "Albert Nobbs" opened on 245 screens and grossed an estimated $773,000, for a modest average of $3,155 per screen.

For the fourth straight weekend, box office is well above what it was this time a year ago. January box office stands at an estimated $812.3 million, up 13 percent over last January's $718.4 million.


The full top 10: 1. "The Grey," $20.0 million (3,185 screens), new release 2. "Underworld Awakening," $12.5 million (3.078), $45.1 million total 3. "One for the Money," $11.8 million (2,737), new release 4. "Red Tails," $10.4 million (2,573), $33.8 million 5. "Man on a Ledge," $8.3 million (2,998), new release 6. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," $7.1 million (2,630), $21.1 million 7. "The Descendants," $6.6 million (2,001), $58.8 million 8. "Contraband," $6.5 million (2,650), $56.4 million total 9. "Beauty and the Beast," $5.3 million (2,145), $41.1 million 10. "Haywire," $4.0 million (2,441), $15.3 million

CATEGORIES Movies