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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - What recession?
Hollywood's overflowing cash registers rang even louder on Sunday as the cartoon "Monsters vs. Aliens" scared up the biggest opening of the year at the North American box office.
DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc's first big 3-D film sold an estimated $58.2 million worth of tickets across the United States and Canada during its first three days, the studio said.
The opening was at the upper end of analysts' forecasts within a $50 million to $60 million range. The year's previous best start was $55.2 million for "Watchmen" earlier this month, though that superhero film quickly stalled, and finally crawled across the $100 million mark last Thursday.
"Monsters vs. Aliens" also set a record for a 3-D opening -- $32.6 million, or about 56 percent of the gross, the studio said. The balance came from traditional movie theaters.
Hollywood is betting a lot on 3-D, with about 40 films scheduled to run in 3-D over the next three years in hopes that audiences will pay $3 to $5 more per ticket than they typically do to watch movies that feature characters and objects popping out of movie screens.
One of the biggest 3-D proponents has been DreamWorks Animation's Chief Executive Officer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has pledged to release all the company's movies in 3-D at an additional cost of $15 million per film.
The production budget for "Monsters vs. Aliens" was about $165 million to $170 million, including that 3-D premium. Worldwide marketing costs are estimated at $175 million, consistent with past DreamWorks Animation releases.
The film, featuring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Rainn Wilson, was distributed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc. Witherspoon plays a 50-foot-(15-meter-)tall newscaster recruited to help battle an alien invasion. Reviews from top critics were mixed.
Sales for all films were up about 40 percent from the haul this time a year ago, reaching $148 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers.
Year-to-date revenues stand at $2.4 billion, up 12 percent from the same period in 2008. The number of tickets sold is up by 10.4 percent.
The windfall presents something of an embarrassment of riches for Hollywood. Lawmakers have looked askance at the moguls' pleas for bailout money. The studios are also engaged in a lengthy standoff with the Screen Actors Guild, whose film and TV contract expired last June.
But box office revenues are just "one piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle," said Media By Numbers president Paul Dergarabedian. For starters, the studios generally split sales about 50/50 with the movie theaters, he said.
And the recession has forced studios to tighten their belts along with other sectors of the economy. Indeed, some analysts believe "Monsters vs. Aliens" could have been better had the credit crunch not hampered the roll-out of expensive digital equipment needed to screen 3-D movies.
Also new was the horror film "The Haunting in Connecticut," which came in at No. 2 with $23.0 million, exceeding the forecast of its distributor, Lionsgate.
The strong opening coincides with an intensifying battle for control of the studio's parent, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp, by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
The activist investor, who controls 14.5 percent of Lions Gate shares, has criticized the company for spending too much on overhead and for its recent $255 million purchase of the TV Guide cable channel.
Lions Gate, which also produces the acclaimed "Mad Men" cable-TV series, has had a good year at the box office. Its most recent film, "Madea Goes to Jail," has earned $89 million, a record for a release by prolific moviemaker Tyler Perry.
Last week's champ, the Nicolas Cage thriller "Knowing," fell to No. 3 with $14.7 million, taking its 10-day total to $46.2 million. The film was released by Summit Entertainment, which is privately held.
Reporting by Dean Goodman and Sue Zeidler; Editing by Eric Walsh