LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" crossed the finish line first at the weekend box office in North America on Sunday, setting a new record for the busy 78-year-old actor and director.
The suburban drama, in which Eastwood plays a grumpy old man who takes on Latino gang members "Dirty Harry"-style, earned an estimated $29 million in the three days since it opened nationally on Friday, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures said.
Eastwood's previous best weekend was with "Space Cowboys," which earned $18 million in 2000. His most recent directing effort, "Changeling," earned $9.4 million during its first weekend of national release. "Gran Torino" has grossed $40.1 million since opening in limited release last month.
Three new movies, all playing mostly to women, entered the top 10 with better-than-expected results. "Bride Wars," starring Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson, opened at No. 2 with $21.5 million, followed by the supernatural thriller "The Unborn," at No. 3 with $21.1 million.
The faith-themed drama "Not Easily Broken," based on a book by noted preacher T.D. Jakes, debuted at No. 9 with $5.6 million. It played in just 724 theaters, while the other movies in the top 10 averaged about 2,950 theaters each.
After two weekends at No. 1, "Marley & Me" fell to No. 4 with $11.4 million. The canine saga, starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, has earned $123.7 million to date.
Even though business in the East and Midwest was affected by bad weather, overall sales rose for the third consecutive weekend, up 14 percent to $148 million from the year-ago period, according to tracking firm Media by Numbers.
Eastwood's box office victory is good timing, coming a day before Oscar voters' nominations ballots are due. "Gran Torino" has largely been ignored by other awards groups, but its higher profile could help it score with last-minute voters.
Another potential influence on Oscar voters is the Golden Globe Awards, which will kick off later on Sunday in Beverly Hills at 8 p.m. EST/0100 GMT. The top Globe contenders are "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon," with five nominations each. "Gran Torino" received one, for original song.
As it did with Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," Warner Bros. opened "Gran Torino" in limited release to build word of mouth. The plan seems to be working, with Eastwood's older fan base now joined by younger moviegoers, the Time Warner Inc-owned studio said.
"Bride Wars," in which Hathaway and Hudson play dueling Bridezillas, cost a modest $30 million to produce, said 20th Century Fox. The News Corp unit also distributed "Marley & Me."
"The Unborn" was even cheaper, at $16 million, distributor Universal Pictures said. The General Electric Co unit, which had been hoping for a $12 million opening, released the film on behalf of closely held producer Relativity Media.
"Not Easily Broken," released by TriStar Pictures cost just $5 million, a studio spokesman said. While the Sony Corp unit did not poll moviegoers by ethnicity, anecdotal evidence suggested that it played mostly to a black audience.
"Benjamin Button," the only leading Globe contender in the top 10, fell two places to No. 5 with $9.5 million. The total for the Brad Pitt vehicle rose to $94.3 million after three weekends. It was released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.