Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" hits theaters Wednesday, and when it comes to the box office, this isn't going to be "Hurt Locker." That was Bigelow's last film, a gritty Iraq war drama that upset "Avatar" for Oscar's Best Picture in 2009 but took in just $17 million domestically. "Zero Dark Thirty" could well top $100 million, say industry analysts -- and if the awards season breaks the right way for the Oscar Best Picture front-runner, it could go higher than that.
"ZDT" and this year's winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, "Amour," are making limited debuts Wednesday, while the Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen comedy "Guilt Trip" and a 3D re-release of "Monsters Inc." go into wide release.
Six more movies will roll out on Friday, including Judd Apatow's "This Is 40" and the Tom Cruise starrer "Jack Reacher," in what Hollywood is hoping will be a very busy pre-holiday week at the box office.
In the course of detailing the killing of Bin Laden, "ZDT" is an examination of the nation's war on terror, its prosecution and its effect on America's collective psyche, and that will help, not hurt, the film at the box office, Exhibitor Relations Senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap.
"This movie is about the biggest American war story since Pearl Harbor," Bock said. "The American people are at a place now where they are ready to look back and really think about what we've been through.
"This movie, particularly if it keeps getting awards buzz, is going to be talked about everywhere, and if you want to have an opinion, you're going to have to see it."
Despite all the newcomers arriving Wednesday and and Friday, Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" is expected to continue dominating. It took in about $7 million Monday -- on the heels of its $85 million debut weekend -- and should cross the $100 million mark Tuesday
Sony Classics is rolling out "Amour," Michael Haneke's dark and unsparing look at old age and death, at two theaters in New York and one in L.A. The French-language film was recently named the best film of 2012 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, giving it an important boost during a season in which its chances outside the Oscar foreign-language category hinge on getting Academy voters to see it.
That honor stopped an awards run by "Zero Dark Thirty," which Sony is rolling out on five screens. The intense tale had won the top award with the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Boston Film Critics Society and the New York Film Critics Online.
"ZDT" was produced by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures for about $45 million. Sony's plan is to go wide with it release on Jan. 11 after the Academy Award nominations.
Beside the film itself and director Bigelow, her producing partner Mark Boal is a good bet for an Best Original Screenplay nomination, as is Jessica Chastain in the Best Actress category. All of those earned Golden Globes nominations in those categories.
The gritty and gripping tale is a critical favorite – it has a 97.7 percent rating at Movie Review Intelligence -- but a lightning rod for political criticism, from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Some critics have charged the film is an apology for U.S. interrogation tactics that included waterboarding, while others say it's intended to boost the image of President Obama.
"Our agenda isn't a partisan agenda -- it's an agenda of trying to look behind the scenes at what went down," screenwriter Boal told TheWrap earlier. "Hopefully art or cinema can present a point of view that's a little above the political fray, but that doesn't mean the political narrative doesn't try to assert itself and pull you back in."
"Amour" is a co-production between companies in Austria, France and Germany. It is Austria's entry and a favorite in Oscar's Best Foreign Language category, and it has a shot at a Best Picture nomination, too.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star as Anne and George, an elderly couple who are retired music teachers and have a daughter (Isabelle Huppert) living abroad. The story, which Haneke wrote and directed based on a similar experience in his own family, focuses on what happens when Anne suffers a stroke.
It was nominated in six categories at the recent European Film Awards and won four, including Best Film and Best Director. The L.A. Film Critics named the 85-year-old Riva co-Best Actress (with Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"), and she has an outside shot an Oscar nomination in that category.
"Guilt Trip" is Streisand's first film foray since "Little Fockers," which debuted around the same time of year in 2010 for Universal -- and her first starring role since 1996's "The Mirror Has Two Faces."
"Little Fockers," a sequel to "Meet the Fockers," opened to $30 million and went on to make $148 million. Distributor Paramount will be happy if the PG13-rated "Guilt Trip," which will be on about 2,300 screens, can do between $8 million and $10 million over the five days.
It's one of three Paramount releases this week; the Tom Cruise thriller "Jack Reacher" and concert film "Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away" debut Friday. "They all play to distinctly different demographics, Paramount's head of distribution Don Harris told TheWrap, "so other than being really busy, we don't have any problem with these three all in the marketplace."
What could provide some tough competition is Judd Apatow's R-rated comedy "This Is 40," which Universal is rolling out on roughly 2,900 screens Friday.
Written by Dan Fogelman and directed by Anne Fletcher ("27 Dresses"), "The Guilt Trip" was produced by Paramount and Skydance Productions for about $40 million.
Disney will have its 3D version of its 2001 animated hit "Monsters Inc." in 2,400 theaters. It will be the third 3D re-release of a Disney film this year. The first two did unspectacular but solid business, particularly when you consider the only cost to the studio is the 3D conversion and marketing.
A 3D version of "Beauty and the Beast" debuted to $17 million in July and went on to make $47 million. In September, a converted "Finding Nemo" took in $16 million in its first week and wound up at $41 million.
Between "The Hobbit," the holdover kids holiday film "Rise of the "Monsters Inc." and a very crowded marketplace, "Monster Inc." will have a tough time matching those numbers.