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    Red Tails' Tuskegee Airmen Take Flight, but Was There a George Lucas Backlash?

    Red Tails, Tristan Wilds Twentieth Century Fox

    In a week where George Lucas told off fanboys, fanboys had a chance to tell off Lucas at the box office.

    But the mogul's Red Tails rose above the fray—and critics—to score a bigger-than-expected $19.1 million debut, per Friday-Sunday estimates.

    Said a Fox exec on Lucas: "He's pulled it off."

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    As expected, Underworld Awakening, the fourth installment in the Kate Beckinsale vampires-versus-werewolves saga, was the weekend's No. 1 movie. Its $25.4 million take, boosted by IMAX and 3-D screenings, was likewise on the high side.

    Underworld pulled its audience mostly from dudes (Lucas-scorned fanboys?); Red Tails scored with men and women evenly. Both movies did better with paying customers than reviewers, with Underworld rating an A-minus in exit polling, and Red Tails a straight A.

    Red Tails was a $58 million bet by Lucas, who self-financed the gee-whiz action film, that the multiplex crowd would respond to the true World War II story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering, African-American-only Army air corp.

    "I couldn't tell you how right he was," Fox's Chris Aronson said Sunday. "This is why he's George Lucas. He was right."

    Elsewhere, Steven Soderbergh's turbo-charged Haywire fizzled, coming up with just a $9 million debut (off a modest $23 million budget, so not a bomb, but still…)

    It could be argued the wide-release debut of Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was more successful than the film's awards-season campaign, which hasn't been successful at all. The 9/11 drama, reportedly made for $40 million, came away with a so-so $10.5 million.

    If it's any consolation for the Hanks-Bullock movie, it did better, screen for screen, than The Artist, which also finally went wide. The Producers Guild Awards winner and presumed Oscar front-runner grossed a relatively quiet $2.4 million at 662 theaters.  

    Other would-be Oscar movies, from The Descendants ($2.5 million) to War Horse ($3 million), seemed to be muddling through, and awaiting the buzz that Tuesday's Academy Awards nominations might bring.

    Mark Wahlberg's Contraband, meanwhile, dropped from first to third, but pushed its stateside total to nearly $50 million.

    Here's the rundown of the weekend's top movies, as compiled from the studios' Friday-Sunday domestic estimates and Exhihitor Relations stats:

    1. Underworld Awakening, $25.4 million
    2. Red Tails, $19.1 million
    3. Contraband, $12.2 million
    4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, $10.5 million
    5. Haywire, $9 million
    6. Beauty and the Beast 3D, $8.6 million
    7. Joyful Noise, $6.1 million
    8. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, $5.5 million
    9. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, $4.8 million
    10. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, $3.8 million

    (Originally published Jan. 22, 2012, at 9:04 a.m. PT)

    PHOTOS: 2012 Sundance: Buzz Films

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