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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio whipped up hysteria at the weekend box office in North America with "Shutter Island," their second chart-topping collaboration.
The duo's study of criminal insanity sold a better-than-expected $40.2 million worth of tickets, distributor Paramount Pictures said on Sunday.
The opening set personal bests for both the director and the actor and silenced industry naysayers who considered it ominous when the cash-strapped Viacom Inc unit said last August it would delay the film's release by four months.
Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said while there were "some perception issues with the press," moviegoers were excited by the film's trailer and advertising that ran during the high-profile Golden Globes and Super Bowl telecasts.
Paramount pulled the movie from its planned October 3 release because it did not have enough marketing money left in its 2009 budget. It instead focused on "The Lovely Bones" and "Up in the Air."
Given that "Shutter Island" has made almost as much in its first three days as "The Lovely Bones" ($43 million) has after a month in wide release, did the studio back the wrong horse, especially since films released early in the year rarely receive Oscar attention?
Moore said he was confident the strong box office and solid reviews would prove a powerful combination when awards season kicks off in the fall.
DiCaprio stars in the $75 million picture as a federal marshal stranded at a prison hospital for the criminally insane off the coast of Massachusetts in 1954. Pundits had forecast an opening in the $25 million to $30 million range.
The actor's previous opening record was $30 million for "Catch Me If You Can" in 2002, while Scorsese's was almost $27 million for his 2006 chart-topper "The Departed."
"Shutter Island" marks the duo's fourth collaboration, after "The Departed," "The Aviator" and "Gangs of New York."
Paramount said the audience was split evenly by gender, a sign that DiCaprio has broadened from his strong female fan base. Mark Ruffalo and Sir Ben Kingsley co-star.
Last weekend's champion, director Garry Marshall's romantic comedy "Valentine's Day," slipped to No. 2 with $17.6 million. The film, from Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros., has earned $87.4 million after 10 days.
All-time box office king "Avatar" rose one spot to No. 3 with $16.1 million, taking its total to $687.8 million. James Cameron's sci-fi smash should hit $700 million next weekend, said its distributor 20th Century Fox, which is owned by News Corp.
The same studio's "Percy Jackson & The Olympians -- The Lightning Thief" slipped one spot to No. 4 with $15.3 million in its second weekend. The 10-day haul for the family picture rose to $58.8 million.
"The Wolfman" slid three places to No. 5 with $9.8 million. The Benicio Del Toro monster movie, also in its second weekend, suffered a stunning 69 percent drop.
Audiences usually drop by half after a movie's opening weekend. But the costly Universal Pictures project, reportedly budgeted at $110 million, underwhelmed audiences and critics.
The 10-day total for "The Wolfman" stands to $50.3 million. It also did modestly overseas with a $16 million weekend in 52 countries, taking its foreign total to $47 million.
Fugitive director Roman Polanski's newly crowned Berlin Film Festival winner "The Ghost Writer" enjoyed a solid start in limited release.
The thriller earned $179,000 from two theaters each in New York and Los Angeles, said closely held distributor Summit Entertainment. It will add 10 markets next weekend.
Polanski is under house arrest in Switzerland as U.S. authorities seek his extradition to face sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
Editing by John O'Callaghan