Credit: Gemma La Mana
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Patriotism ruled at the box office this weekend, as the Navy SEAL action film, Act of Valor, scored a big victory with $24.7 million.

Relativity acquired the military movie (which was independently financed by the Bandito brothers for $12 million) for just $13 million and then spent another $30 million promoting it — a large percentage of which paid for four Super Bowl spots — and their gamble has paid off in a big way. Relativity successfully captured their target audience of males 18-54 by campaigning to gamers, ethnic audiences, sports fans, country music fans, military, and the faith community. Crowds were 71 percent male, while 60 percent of audiences were above the age of 25. Act of Valor earned an “A” CinemaScore grade, meaning it may thrive at the box office for weeks to come.

The film’s main selling point has been that it stars actual Navy SEALs, a branch that, after the Osama Bin Laden assassination in Spring 2011, is especially adored by the American public. “I think people have always been fascinated by this elite group of warriors,” says Kyle Davies, Relativity’s president of worldwide distribution. “They wanted to see the real SEALs doing what they do.”

Clearly, the promise of authenticity proved attractive for moviegoers, and it helped Act of Valor become the third number-one debut for the young studio, who formerly topped the chart with Limitless and Immortals. Still, perhaps authenticity wasn’t the only draw here — could Act of Valor‘s lack of authenticity been a major boon as well? Allow me to explain:

Act of Valor‘s $24.7 million opening marks the best debut for a modern war film (excluding sci-fi titles) since 2005’s Jarhead, which began its run with $27.7 million but fell quickly from there to a $62.7 million finish (Jarhead cost $72 million). Since then, most every military movie has failed to ignite much excitement in theaters. 2007’s The Kingdom grossed $47.6 million against a $70 million budget. 2008’s Stop-Loss found $10.9 million against a $25 million budget. 2009’s The Hurt Locker pulled in $17 million, the lowest total for a Best Picture winner since box office began being tracked in 1978. And 2010’s Green Zone utterly flopped, with $35.1 million against a $100 million budget. What did all those movies have in common? They all dealt heavily with the Middle East, and they were all based on recent, real-life military conflicts. In other words, they offered no escape from the constant coverage of America’s controversial presence in the Middle East, which people already hear about every single day on the news. Act of Valor, meanwhile, served up a fictional international story about anti-terrorism efforts, which may have made it more accessible/desirable to audiences.

Did this fictionality actually make a big difference? There’s no quantifiable way of knowing for sure, but I’d suspect that it helped the film not be seen as a politically-charged drama, which could have proved alienating to some audiences. Still, regardless of why it broke out, one thing is certain: Act of Valor is major box office winner.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

In second place, Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds managed a somewhat middling $16 million debut, making it the high-profile actor/director’s second-lowest opening behind Daddy’s Little Girls, which started with $11.2 million in February 2007. As his career progresses, Perry is proving to be more of a draw with his comedies — like the Madea films and Why Did I Get Married? — than his more dramatic fare. Yet the movie is far from a financial disaster — in fact, it performed within Lionsgate’s expectations. Perry produces his movies for very reasonable prices (Good Deeds was made for a reported $15 million), and even though they generally prove quite front-loaded, financial risk is a minimum. Good Deeds earned an “A” CinemaScore grade, and could find about $35-40 million total.

The next three spots on the chart were filled by successful holdovers from two weekends ago that continue to prove mighty at the box office. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island dropped only 32 percent to third place with $13.5 million. Warner Brothers’ $79 million 3-D sequel has now grossed $76.5 million after three weekends — well ahead of the $60.5 million that the original Journey to the Center of the Earth had earned at the same point in its run. Journey 2 is now a lock for a gross above $100 million domestically and $300 million worldwide. Safe House finished close behind in fourth place with $11.4 million. The $85 million thriller has now grossed $98.1 million total and will pass $100 million sometime this week. The Vow rounded out the Top 5 with $10 million, which lifted the $30 million romance’s cume to $103 million — the highest gross ever for distributor Screen Gems.

Credit: Gemma La Mana

Unlike Act of Valor or Good Deeds, the weekend’s other two new releases, Wanderlust and Gone, were both dead on arrival, finishing in eighth and ninth place, respectively. Universal’s Wanderlust, despite strong reviews and the presence of Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, couldn’t overcome its confusing title and grossed only $6.6 million against a budget above $30 million. The comedy earned an unenthusiastic “B-” CinemaScore grade. Gone fared even worse. Summit’s Amanda Seyfried thriller took in a truly terrible $5 million, and an equally unimpressive “C+” CinemaScore grade.

Back in 13th place, The Artist ticked up 23 percent to $3 million on the eve of the Academy Awards, where it is expected to pick up a Best Picture Oscar tonight. The silent film has amassed $31.9 million total, and could take in substantially more money depending on how it fares at tonight’s ceremony.

1. Act of Valor – $24.7 million

2. Good Deeds – $16.0 million

3. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – $13.5 million

4. Safe House – $11.4 million

5. The Vow – $10.0 million

6. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – $8.8 million

7. This Means War – $8.5 million

8. Wanderlust – $6.6 million

9. Gone – $5.0 million

10. The Secret World of Arrietty – $4.5 million

For more box office coverage, follow me on Twitter: Follow @EWGradySmith

Act of Valor
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  • 111 minutes