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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Did someone say catfight?
The prospect of a saucy smackdown between R&B singer Beyonce Knowles and teen-movie siren Ali Larter propelled the new "Fatal Attraction"-style thriller "Obsessed" to the top of the weekend box office in North America.
According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, "Obsessed" sold $28.5 million worth of tickets, earning about twice what industry pundits had forecast and easily exceeding its modest $20 million budget.
The Screen Gems picture ranks as the label's second-best opening after the $30 million start for 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." Screen Gems is the lucrative low-budget division of Sony Corp's Columbia Pictures.
Knowles, the former Destiny's Child frontwoman who recently played blues icon Etta James in "Cadillac Records," stars as a woman who engages in a no-holds-barred fight to save her marriage when a pretty office temp (Larter) falls hard for her husband (Idris Elba).
"This is one of those movies where you want to watch Beyonce kick butt," said Rory Bruer, Columbia's president of worldwide distribution.
The studio said female moviegoers comprised 58 percent of the audience, while 49 percent of all viewers were aged under 25.
Last weekend's champion, the "Big"-style body-swap comedy "17 Again," slipped to No. 2 with $11.7 million. The movie, starring former "High School Musical" hunk Zac Efron, has earned $40 million after 10 days. It was released by Warner Bros. Pictures, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
The top-10 boasted three other new releases. "Fighting," starring Channing Tatum as a street-brawler, opened at No. 3 with a solid $11.4 million; "The Soloist," a drama starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., at No. 4 with a modest $9.7 million; and the documentary "Earth" at No. 5 with $8.6 million, the biggest opening for a nature film.
"Fighting" also played to a young crowd, with two-thirds of the audience aged under 25. But male moviegoers accounted for 58 percent. The film, which also stars Terrence Howard, was produced by Rogue Pictures, a unit of closely held Relativity Media, and distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal.
Despite its acting pedigree, "The Soloist" encountered the same problem that has afflicted recent adult-based dramas such as "Duplicity" and "State of Play." "None of them seem to have played at the high end," said Don Harris, executive vice-president of distribution at Paramount Pictures, which released the film.
The fact-based story stars Downey as a Los Angeles Times columnist who befriends a homeless musician (Foxx). Critics mostly liked the movie, with the Los Angeles Times being a notable exception.
The $40 million film was produced by closely held DreamWorks SKG. Paramount, a unit of Viacom Inc, originally planned to release it late last year in hopes of getting some awards recognition, but the studio pulled it at the last minute to concentrate on Oscar campaigns for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Revolutionary Road."
"Duplicity," which starred Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, ended up with about $40 million. "State of Play," starring Russell Crowe, fell five places to No. 7 with $6.9 million in its second weekend, taking its 10-day haul to $25.1 million. Both were released by Universal.
While the other new releases opened on Friday, as is tradition, "Earth" got a two-day head start to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was produced by Walt Disney Co's nascent Disneynature Films. The company said the previous best comparable opening for a nature documentary was $7.2 million for 2005's "March of the Penguins."
Editing by Philip Barbara