LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - To Hollywood's great surprise, moviegoers will show up en masse for the rare summer film that features real actors, an original story and some genuine thrills.
The new sci-fi mystery "Super 8" easily claimed the top spot at the weekend box office in North America after selling about $38 million worth of tickets, despite concerns about a marketing campaign that kept some key elements under wraps.
Its distributor, Paramount Pictures, said on Sunday the tally includes a $1 million contribution from a limited number of sneak-peak previews on Thursday, a day before the film opened in wide release across the United States and Canada.
Industry pundits had forecast a three-day opening in the $25 million to $30 million range, while some movie theater executives had worried it might struggle to hit $20 million.
In a summer of familiar sequels and superheroes, "Super 8" is the first original, live-action non-sequel to take the No. 1 slot in almost three months. The thriller "Limitless" led the field during the weekend of March 18-20.
Last weekend's champion, "X-Men: First Class," the fifth entry in the Marvel comic book series, slipped to No. 2 with $25.0 million. It was followed by "The Hangover, Part II" with $18.5 million in its third weekend. The "X-Men" sequel remained the top choice overseas with sales of $42.2 million.
The only other big new film in North America bombed. The kids movie "Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer" opened at No. 7 with just $6.3 million, coming in at the low end of expectations in the $6 million to $10 million range.
The advance buzz for "Super 8" was hardly deafening, even with the A-list imprimatur of J.J. Abrams as writer/director and Steven Spielberg as a producer. Abrams convinced skeptical Paramount executives to run a campaign that retained a sense of old-fashioned mystery, earning scorn from industry pundits as surveys showed little enthusiasm among prospective moviegoers.
The plot centers on a group of kids in a small Ohio town who spend the summer of 1979 making a home movie using the 8mm film format that was popular back then and from which the film gets its title. They witness a train crash, which triggers a series of inexplicable events and disappearances. The trailer deliberately did not show the alien creature around which the film revolves.
As industry pundits began to second-guess that strategy, Paramount last week announced the film would open a day ahead of schedule on Thursday in a sneak-preview promotion with Twitter. A glimpse of the creature was also sent online.
The last-minute fix, along with overwhelmingly positive reviews, seemed to do the trick. The film cost a relatively modest $50 million to make, according to Paramount.
In an age where movie trailers routinely act like mini-synopses, Paramount walked "a fine line" between making the movie interesting, but not wanting to give away too much information, said Don Harris, executive vice-president of domestic distribution at the Viacom Inc unit.
With a hefty 71 percent of the audience aged over 25 -- despite a cast of youngsters -- Harris was confident the film would pull in younger viewers as the summer progresses.
"Super 8" also earned $6.7 million from nine foreign markets, led by $2.7 million in Australia where it trailed the "Hangover" and "X-Men" sequels.
Elsewhere, "Judy Moody" is the latest in a string of underperforming literary adaptations aimed at young girls, including last summer's Beverly Cleary adaptation "Ramona and Beezus" and a 2007 adaptation of the Nancy Drew books.
It was financed for nearly $20 million by Sarah Siegel-Magness and her husband Gary Magness, the couple who backed the Oscar-winning movie "Precious." Closely held studio Relativity Media distributed the movie for a fee.
"X-Men: First Class" has earned $99 million after two weekends, dropping a relatively slight 55 percent from its opening round. Its foreign total stands at $124 million from about 66 markets. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp.
"The Hangover: Part II" raced to $217 million in North America and an additional $216 million in 55 markets. The sequel was distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Eric Beech and Chris Wilson