LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The hard-working maids of "The Help" hung on to the top of a storm-battered box office over the weekend and beat a trio of new releases with $14.3 million in domestic ticket sales, studio estimates released on Sunday showed.
Hurricane Irene forced the closure of theaters in big markets such as New York and kept moviegoers home along a broad stretch of the East Coast. Domestic ticket sales came in 23 percent lower than the same weekend a year earlier, according to figures from Hollywood.com.
"The Help," a drama about black housekeepers in Civil Rights-era Mississippi, took the top spot in the North American (U.S. and Canadian) market for the second straight weekend. The DreamWorks-produced film adaptation of a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett has grossed $96.6 million since it opened three weeks ago, distributor Walt Disney Co said.
The bad weather did not help new releases on a late summer weekend that was expected to be slow even without a major storm.
Action movie "Columbiana" debuted in second place with an estimated $10.3 million, ahead of studio forecasts of around $8 million. The film features actress Zoe Saldana as a woman who witnesses her parents' murder as a child in Bogota and grows up to be an assassin seeking revenge.
"The picture is off to a good start, storm or no storm," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp that released the film.
Horror movie "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, finished third with domestic sales of $8.7 million.
"Our key large urban East Coast markets were really killed" by the hurricane, said Bob Berney, president of theatrical distribution for FilmDistrict. For example, the movie took in nearly $21,000 at one Manhattan theater on Friday and zero on Saturday, Berney said.
Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst with Hollywood.com, said there was "no question" the hurricane had a "significant negative impact" on ticket sales.
"That said, this was never preordained to be a blockbuster kind of weekend and late August is typically a slowdown period for the summer movie season," he said.
Sci-fi movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" finished fourth with $8.7 million, bringing its domestic total to $148.5 million over four weeks. Internationally, the film about rampaging, genetically enhanced chimps has grossed $158.5 million.
Combining domestic and international markets, "Apes" has climbed to a strong $307 million to date. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp.
A new comedy, "Our Idiot Brother," landed in fifth place for the weekend with $6.6 million domestically. The movie stars Paul Rudd as an underachieving but big-hearted sibling who disrupts the lives of his three sisters.
The film likely felt the brunt of Irene's box-office punch as the movie had been expected to perform well in New York, said Erik Lomis, president of distribution for The Weinstein Co, which released the movie. "We got hit hardest in our best area. It's an East Coast comedy," Lomis said.
Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Trott and Sandra Maler