LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The maids of "The Help" didn't take the Labor Day weekend off. The surprise summer hit held firm at the top of the domestic box office for the third straight week with $19 million in ticket sales.
The drama about white women and their black maids in Civil Rights-era Mississippi polished off three new films based on four-day estimates released by movie studios on Monday, the U.S. Labor Day holiday that ended a record summer at U.S. and Canadian theaters. "The Help," a critics favorite that debuted a month ago in the No. 2 spot, was produced by DreamWorks and distributed by Walt Disney Co.
Newcomers including two horror flicks generated modest sales on a weekend traditionally slow for movie-going.
Spy thriller "The Debt," starring Helen Mirren, took second place with a better-than-expected $12.6 million in the North American (U.S. and Canadian) market. The film tells the story of the hunt for a Nazi war criminal and how the mission haunts a trio of secret agents three decades later. The film drew an older audience with 70 percent of moviegoers over age 40, distributor Focus Features said.
The studio released the movie on Wednesday, and estimated domestic sales since it debuted reached $14.5 million.
Space mystery "Apollo 18," a new release that purports to use "found footage" of an ill-fated trip to the moon, came in third for the weekend with $10.7 million. That fell within studio projections for a film that cost less than $5 million to make, said Erik Lomis, president of distribution for The Weinstein Co, which released the film.
Following behind at No. 4 was new thriller "Shark Night (3-D)," a tale of nightmarish fresh-water shark attacks at a Louisiana lake house, with $10.3 million, at the higher end of industry expectations. Aimed at teens, the film drew 57 percent of its audience from an under-25 crowd.
Sci-fi flick "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" stayed strong, rounding out the top five with $10.3 million during its fifth weekend in theaters.
"Apes," a revival of the classic tale of chimps launching a revolution, and "The Help" stood out as two surprise summer hits. "Apes" has rung up $162.5 million in domestic sales and $186.5 million in international markets, for a combined total of $349 million.
"The Help" has pulled in about $123.4 million since it hit U.S. and Canadian theaters, exceeding forecasts from box-office watchers. The film is an adaptation of a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.
The two movies helped Hollywood rack up record sales for the four-month summer season measured from early May through Labor Day, when studios bring in as much as 40 percent of annual revenue. Domestic totals hit an estimated $4.4 billion for the period, a 0.7 percent increase from last year, according to figures from Hollywood.com Box Office.
The revenue gain was helped by slightly higher average ticket prices as movie attendance fell 1.4 percent.
"Though attendance figures are down, the performance is still impressive given the intense competition" for audiences posed by a range of entertainment options, said Paul Dergarabedian, head of Hollywood.com Box Office.
Summer hits included big sequels such as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" plus superhero tales such as "Captain America: The First Avenger" and family film "The Smurfs." Adult comedies, including "Bridesmaids" and "The Hangover 2" also scored with audiences.
"The Debt" was released by Focus Features, a unit of Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures. Privately held Weinstein Co released "Apollo 18." Closely held Relativity Media released "Shark Night (3-D)" in the United States and eOne distributed the film in Canada.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was released by 20th Century Fox, the film studio of News Corp.
Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman