LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It may have been a bleak Christmas for U.S. retailers but Hollywood enjoyed a bumper holiday as new films, led by the dog tale "Marley & Me" and awards contender "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," drew throngs of moviegoers to theaters across North America.
"Marley & Me" sold an estimated $37 million worth of tickets during the traditional three-day weekend beginning on Friday, distributor 20th Century Fox said on Sunday. Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson star in the adaptation of a bestseller about a couple and their golden retriever.
The movie about "life, love and family" -- according to Fox senior vice president of domestic distribution Bert Livingston -- played strongly with audiences of all ages seeking feel-good entertainment.
As with the four other new releases, "Marley & Me" opened on Thursday and earned $14.7 million -- a new Christmas Day record.
The old tally, set in 2001 when "Ali" opened to $10.2 million, was also broken by the new Adam Sandler comedy "Bedtime Stories" and by "Benjamin Button," starring Aniston's ex-husband Brad Pitt.
Overall Christmas Day sales reached $75 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers, up about $10 million from last year.
Still, Hollywood is on course for a down year. With three days left, year-to-date sales are off about 1 percent at $9.5 billion, while the number of tickets sold has slid 5.2 percent, Media By Numbers said.
"Bedtime Stories" was No. 2 for the weekend with $28.1 million and its Christmas Day haul of $10.5 million drove its total to $38.6 million, said Walt Disney Pictures. Sandler plays a man whose bedtime stories come true in real life.
"Benjamin Button," in which Pitt's character ages backward, did better on Christmas Day with a $12 million opening. Its weekend tally of $27 million took its total to $39 million, said Paramount Pictures.
The adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story has racked up five nominations from the Golden Globes and eight from the Critics Choice Awards. Women accounted for 60 percent of the audience and 70 percent of ticket buyers were over the age of 25, Paramount said.
Tom Cruise's fact-based thriller "Valkyrie," about a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler, opened at No. 4 with $21.5 million for the weekend and $30 million for the four days -- much better than skeptics had predicted. The United Artists movie has been plagued by bad publicity and shifting release dates.
"We had obstacles to overcome," said Erik Lomis, head of worldwide distribution at the studio's closely held Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer parent. "But the movie speaks for itself."
Male moviegoers comprised 55 percent of the audience and two-thirds of the audience was over 25 years old.
The only dud among the rookies was Lionsgate's comic book adaptation "The Spirit," which opened at No. 9 with $6.5 million for the weekend and $10.4 million for the four-day period.
After two weekends in limited release, "Doubt" expanded nationally and jumped five places to No. 10 with $5.7 million for the three-day period.
Miramax Films' adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning play about suspected child abuse by a priest stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It has earned $8.8 million to date.
Last weekend's champ, the Jim Carrey comedy "Yes Man," fell to No. 5 with $16.5 million. The 10-day tally for the Warner Bros. release rose to $49.6 million.
Fox is a unit of News Corp. Paramount Pictures is a unit of Viacom Inc. Walt Disney Pictures and Miramax Films are units of Walt Disney Co.
Lionsgate is a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. Warner Bros is a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by John O'Callaghan