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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ben Affleck made off with a bigger-than-expected haul at the weekend box office in North America on Sunday as his heist thriller "The Town" surprised observers with a strong No. 1 opening.
The movie, which Affleck both directed and stars in, earned an estimated $23.8 million during its first three days, distributor Warner Bros. said. It had been expected to open at No. 2 in the $15 million to $20 million range.
The new high school comedy "Easy A," which industry pundits predicted last week would open at No. 1, followed with a solid $18.2 million -- which was more than twice its budget.
Also new were the diabolical horror "Devil" at No. 3 with a disappointing $12.6 million and the low-budget 3D cartoon "Alpha and Omega" at No. 5 with $9.2 million, which was in line with modest expectations.
Last weekend's champion, "Resident Evil: Afterlife," dropped to No. 4 with $10.1 million; its 10-day total stands at $44 million. The fourth entry in the zombie franchise remained No. 1 at the international box office after a $38.7 million weekend in 48 markets took its total to $103 million.
The four newcomers helped North American sales pick up markedly, a week after business dipped to a two-year low in the traditional lull following the Labor Day holiday weekend. The top 12 films earned $88.5 million, up 34 percent from last weekend and up 1.4 percent from the year-ago period, according the box office tracking division of Hollywood.com.
"The Town" marks the follow-up to Affleck's directing debut, 2007's "Gone Baby Gone," another crime drama set in his Boston hometown. He did not appear in that film, which made $20 million in its entire North American run.
In the new film, he plays the brains among a gang of robbers, who complicates things by falling for a bank teller caught up in one of their heists.
The film got a boost in the last 10 days from a well-received premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and from strong reviews. It played strongest to older male patrons, said Warner Bros., which hopes the film garners attention during awards season.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, partnered on the modestly budgeted $37 million project with studio-based financier Legendary Pictures.
"Easy A," which cost about $8 million to make, stars Emma Stone as a clean-cut student who lies about losing her virginity. Women accounted for two-thirds of the audience, said distributor Screen Gems, the Sony Corp. label that also handled "Resident Evil: Afterlife."
"Devil," a supernatural thriller based on an idea by "Sixth Sense" filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, was expected to rival "The Town" in the weekend rankings. Exit data indicated a negative reaction to the story of a group of people stranded with Satan in an elevator. It was distributed by General Electric Co's hit-starved Universal Pictures, which paid $27 million for worldwide rights from financier Media Rights Capital.
"Alpha and Omega," the story of two wolves, played to mothers and their youngsters while critics piled on the brickbats. It marks the debut co-production between distributor Lionsgate and Indian animation house Crest Entertainment.
Lionsgate, whose Lions Gate Entertainment Corp parent is the object of a hostile takeover bid by financier Carl Icahn, said "Alpha and Omega" would be a profitable film.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Philip Barbara