LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Zero Dark Thirty," Hollywood's re-telling of the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, captured the No. 1 spot on movie box office charts over the weekend with $24 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.
The movie starring Jessica Chastain as a dogged CIA agent edged out horror movie spoof "A Haunted House," which earned $18.8 million, as well as "Gangster Squad," a period crime drama that finished in third place with $16.7 million, according to studio estimates.
Caught in political controversy, "Zero Dark Thirty" received a boost this week from five Oscar nominations, including best picture, though its director Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed in the best director category.
The movie is a dramatized account of the hunt for al Qaeda leader bin Laden and the May 2011 U.S. Navy SEAL raid in which he was killed. It has sparked a debate about its depictions of "enhanced interrogation techniques," with some critics arguing that the film promotes the use of torture.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said their movie depicts several investigation methods and does not suggest one particular technique led to bin Laden. Sony Pictures Chairwoman Amy Pascal on Friday said the movie "does not advocate torture."
Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Corp's Sony Pictures studio, said one of the things the motive had certainly done was to promote "a lot of dialogue and conversation."
He attributed the film's strong performance to "the awards, conversation about controversy, and the film itself."
A Senate Committee is investigating whether the CIA spy agency provided the filmmakers with any inappropriate access to secret material. Government e-mails and memoranda released to the conservative group Judicial Watch show that both the CIA and the Pentagon provided extensive access.
"Zero Dark Thirty" expanded nationwide this weekend to nearly 3,000 theaters following limited showings since late December. It cost $40 million to make, according to website Hollywood.com.
The low-budget "A Haunted House" comes from Marlon Wayans, writer of the "Scary Movie" horror spoof series. The film debuted to $18.8 million, beating out period noir "Gangster Squad." The $2.5 million production tells the story of a man dealing with his wife after she becomes possessed by the devil inhabiting their dream home.
Jason Cassidy, head of marketing at Open Road Films, the distributor of "A Haunted House," said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the film's numbers, and credited African-American and Latino audiences with boosting the film's numbers.
Cassidy added that the film's release on a weekend in which it had no competition from other major comedies, as well as heavy promotion by star Marlon Wayans, helped it succeed at the box office despite largely negative reviews.
"Gangster Squad" opened Friday in third place at $16.7 million after it was reworked following last July's fatal shooting in Aurora, Colorado at a midnight premiere of Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises."
The film stars Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling and originally included a scene eerily similar to the Aurora tragedy in which gunmen open fire from behind a movie screen. A new scene was filmed and the movie's September premiere date was pushed to January.
Set in 1949 Los Angeles, the movie stars Sean Penn as real-life gangster Mickey Cohen, who is ultimately brought down by a band of cops led by Brolin and Gosling. The film is based on a non-fiction book by Paul Lieberman.
Two Christmas Day releases rounded out the top of the weekend chart. Quentin Tarantino Western "Django Unchained" landed in fourth place with $11.1 million at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters. In fifth place, musical "Les Miserables" took in $10.1 million.
The weekend marked a strong start for Hollywood in 2013 after 2012's record box-office numbers. $10.8 billion in movie ticket sales were recorded in 2012, according to boxoffice.com, making 2012 the most lucrative year ever for Hollywood. The numbers exceeded those from 2011 by nearly six percent. Profits from the first two weeks of January 2013 are also up about 22 percent over the same time period of 2012.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, released "Gangster Squad. "Zero Dark Thirty" was distributed by Sony Corp's movie studio. "A Haunted House" was released by Open Road Films, a joint venture between theater owners Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Inc.
The Weinstein Co distributed "Django Unchained." "Les Miserables" was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp.
(Reporting By Lisa Richwine and Andrea Burzynski; Editing by Paul Simao and David Brunnstrom)