LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - George Clooney suffered a bruising tackle at the North American box office on Sunday as his new football comedy "Leatherheads" failed to kick the gambling drama "21" from the top spot.
"Leatherheads" took to the field in second place with estimated ticket sales of $13.5 million for the three days beginning Friday, said its distributor, Universal Pictures.
"21" logged a second weekend at No. 1 with three-day sales of $15.1 million, enjoying a stronger-than-expected hold, said Columbia Pictures.
Some rival studios thought Universal's estimate was too generous, by upward of $1 million, placing "Leatherheads" at No. 3 below the new Jodie Foster family adventure "Nim's Island," which reported $13.3 million. Final data will be issued on Monday.
Universal had hoped "Leatherheads" would open in the mid-teen millions range, said Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at the General Electric Co-owned studio.
"We're all disappointed," she said, dismissing rivals' claims that the studio's estimate was overly optimistic.
She said the pre-release tracking looked strong in the film's target demographic of older movie-goers, a group that does not rush out to theaters on opening weekend. More than half of the audience was aged 40 and older, the studio said.
Clooney, 46, directed and starred in "Leatherheads," a $58 million farce set in the early days of American professional football. He claims he also rewrote much of Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly's script, which had been languishing for 17 years, introducing its screwball tone. But his request for credit was denied by the Writers Guild of America and he resigned from the union as a voting member in protest.
Critics have savaged the film, particularly the script. According to Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), a Web site that aggregates reviews, only 36 percent of top critics liked the film.
Despite his fame and fortune, Clooney is a risky box office bet. He was last in theaters with "Michael Clayton," which earned $10.4 million during its first weekend of wide release in October. The acclaimed legal thriller finished with a disappointing $49 million but did pick up seven Oscar nominations. Other films, such as "The Good German," "Intolerable Cruelty" and "Solaris," also stumbled badly.
Clooney's biggest success was with the 2001 caper "Ocean's Eleven" and its two sequels, in which he co-starred with heavyweights like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts.
"Leatherheads" marks his first mainstream film as a director. His previous efforts were 2002's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck," which found favor with critics and discerning audiences.
His publicist did not return a message seeking comment.
After 10 days, "21" has earned $46.5 million, and should end up in the $70 million range, said Columbia, a unit of Sony Corp. It cost about $35 million to make.
"Nim's Island," released by News Corp's 20th Century Fox, met the studio's expectations. The $37 million movie, based on Wendy Orr's 2002 novel, stars Abigail Breslin as a girl who lives on a remote volcanic paradise.
Also new, at No. 5, was the horror film "The Ruins" with $7.8 million. It was produced by DreamWorks Pictures and released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.
Martin Scorsese's much-hyped Rolling Stones concert film "Shine a Light" enjoyed a solid opening in limited release, pulling in $1.5 million from 276 theaters. The movie, drawn from two New York theater shows in 2006, was released by Viacom's Paramount Classics.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Bill Trott