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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Burn After Reading," a screwball spy comedy from Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, fired up the weekend box office in North America on Sunday, helping overall sales rebound from the five-year low plumbed a week earlier.
"Burn," whose cast includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich, opened at No. 1 after selling an estimated $19.4 million worth of tickets across the United States and Canada, distributor Focus Features said.
The three-day tally set a new record both for the Coens and for Focus, the arthouse arm of General Electric Co's NBC Universal unit. It also represents the first No. 1 for Focus. The brothers' previous best was "Ladykillers" with a $12.6 million opening in 2004.
Three other new releases followed, all within their respective studios' expectations: prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry's latest domestic saga "The Family That Preys" at No. 2 with $18 million; the Robert De Niro-Al Pacino cop drama "Righteous Kill" at No. 3 with $16.5 million; and a critically maligned remake of the 1939 distaff drama "The Women" at No. 4 with $10.1 million.
Critics were hardly more enthused about the other new releases, including "Burn After Reading," the Coens' first release since they won the best picture Oscar in February for the Texan drama "No Country For Old Men."
Pitt, sporting an impressive pompadour, plays a hyperactive gym instructor who tries to extort money from a sacked CIA analyst (Malkovich) whose sensitive memoirs he stumbles across when a computer disc is dropped by accident. Clooney plays a womanizing federal marshal.
Focus distribution president Jack Foley said the Coens' success with "No Country" combined with "the Brad factor" to put "Burn for Reading" over the top.
The studio made a strong play for women, who accounted for about half the audience. In fact, the weekend was a bonanza for women, with female moviegoers snapping up about 80 percent of the tickets for both Lionsgate's "The Family That Preys" and Picturehouse's "The Women," said their respective studios.
"The Family That Preys," which revolves around dueling matriarchs, marks Perry's first movie with a white headliner -- Kathy Bates. But blacks still accounted for 82 percent of the overall audience, in line with Perry's previous films, said Lionsgate.
The film could have had a shot at No. 1 if Hurricane Ike had not shut down such key black markets as Houston, east Texas and Louisiana, said Steve Rothenberg, president of distribution at the Lions Gate Entertainment Corp-owned studio.
"The Women," whose cast includes Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes and Annette Bening, pulled in white women, and also played well with gay men, said Picturehouse president Bob Berney. The film, which counts Mick Jagger among its producers, represents the final release for Picturehouse, which is being closed down by its Time Warner Inc parent.
Overture Films' "Righteous Kill," only the second film in which De Niro and Pacino share screen time after 1995's "Heat," played strongly across all adult demographics, said Kyle Davies, the studio's executive VP of theatrical distribution. Overture is a fledgling unit of Liberty Media Corp's Starz Media.
Overall sales ended a seven-week losing streak, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. The top 12 earned $86.6 million, up 34 percent from the year-ago period. Sales were also up 72 percent from last weekend's five-year low of $50 million.
The incumbent champ, Nicolas Cage's thriller "Bangkok Dangerous," tumbled to No. 8 with $2.4 million. The 10-day total for the Lionsgate film stands at $12.5 million.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Bill Trott