LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The new gambling drama "21" played a winning hand at the weekend box office in North America, earning an estimated $23.7 million in its first round, distributor Columbia Pictures said on Sunday.
The fact-based saga revolves around a team of college whizzes who conspire to count cards at blackjack tables in Las Vegas. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, a professor who coaches the students, and Laurence Fishburne, who plays a casino thug. The movie was directed by Australian filmmaker Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde").
Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp, said the opening for the $35 million film exceeded expectations, and it played strongly to old, young, male and female moviegoers.
After two weekends at No. 1, the animated smash "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who!" slipped to No. 2 with $17.4 million. The 20th Century Fox comedy, featuring the voices of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, became the first release of 2008 to hit the century mark, with sales of $117.3 million to date. Fox is a unit of News Corp.
New at No. 3 was the spoof "Superhero Movie," with a disappointing $9.5 million. Industry observers had expected an opening in the low- to mid-teen millions. Two months ago, the similarly themed "Meet the Spartans" opened to $18.5 million. "Superhero Movie" was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., and produced by Weinstein Co's Dimension Films banner. Both are privately held. MGM declined comment.
Prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry's latest comedy "Meet the Browns" tumbled two places to No. 4 with $7.8 million, 61 percent lower than its opening weekend haul. Its total stands at $32.8 million. The film was released by Lionsgate, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
The Owen Wilson comedy "Drillbit Taylor" fell one place to No. 5 with $5.3 million, also in its second weekend. Its drop was 49 percent, and its total rose to $20.6 million. The film was released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.
Paramount also released the Iraq war-themed drama "Stop-Loss," which opened at No. 8 with just $4.5 million. War-related films, such as "In the Valley of Elah" and "Rendition" have bombed at the box office, and expectations were low for "Stop-Loss," which stars Ryan Phillippe as a soldier who faces a second tour of duty. It was made by Kimberly Peirce, who directed Hilary Swank's Oscar-winning performance in the 1999 film "Boys Don't Cry."
The British comedy "Run, Fat Boy, Run," the feature directing debut of former "Friends" star David Schwimmer, opened at No. 13 with $2.4 million. The film topped the U.K. box office in September, and was initially scheduled to open in North America the following month. It was released by Picturehouse, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Overall sales fell for a second consecutive weekend and the first quarter finished on a flat note. Ticket sales for the quarter stood at $2.1 billion, up 0.64 percent from the year-ago period, according to Media By Numbers, which collects box office data. Attendance was down 2.6 percent. A year ago, sales were up 5.7 percent from the first quarter of 2006 and attendance was up 3.9 percent.
Media By Numbers president Paul Dergarabedian said the box office faced a tough comparison with last year. By the end of the first quarter last year, three films had made over $100 million: "Ghost Rider," "Wild Hogs" and "300."
He predicted business would remain tough for the next few weeks. The lucrative summer period begins May 2 with the Marvel comic book adaptation "Iron Man," but no one expects the Robert Downey Jr. movie to come close to the record-breaking $151 million opening for "Spider-Man 3" in 2007.