LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hit movies starring Nicolas Cage and the Chipmunks led a strong slate of diverse crowd pleasers at the North American box office on Sunday.
Additionally, movies playing in limited release, such as awards-season contenders "Juno" and "There Will Be Blood," pulled in sell-out holiday crowds. "The Bucket List," a comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, opened strongly in three cities before its national release on January 11.
Cage ruled the roost for a second weekend with "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," which sold an estimated $35.6 million worth of tickets in the three days beginning Friday, according to distributor Walt Disney Pictures.
After two weeks, the action fantasy has earned $124 million, and is hot on the trail of the $173 million total of its 2004 predecessor, "National Treasure," the biggest movie of Cage's career. The early international total for the sequel stands at $59.8 million.
Cage stars as a treasure hunter who tries to solve an ancient puzzle related to Lincoln's assassination, in the process managing to break into both Buckingham Palace and the White House. Critics ridiculed the movie, which also stars Jon Voight and Dame Helen Mirren.
The surprise smash "Alvin and the Chipmunks" moved up one place to No. 2 with $30 million. The helium-voiced critters, a childhood staple for almost 50 years, have sold $142.4 million worth of tickets after three weeks. The Twentieth Century Fox film cost in the high-$50 million range to produce.
Will Smith's sci-fi thriller "I Am Legend" slipped one place to No. 3 with $27.5 million, also in its third weekend. The total for the former champ rose to $194.6 million. Distributor Warner Bros. said it would reach $200 million on Monday, becoming the studio's third release to hit that level this year, after "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and "300." Warner Bros. also had three $200 million movies in 2005, and said no other studio has ever accomplished that feat in a calendar year.
The political comedy "Charlie Wilson's War" held steady at No. 4 with $11.8 million. The fact-based film stars Tom Hanks as an obscure Texas congressman who manages to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The 10-day haul for the Universal Pictures release now stands at $34.5 million.
"Juno" jumped five places to No. 5 with $10.3 million in its fourth weekend, after tripling the number of theaters to about 1,000 -- a fraction of the runs for the other movies in the top 10. Its total rose to $25.7 million, and will soar next weekend when the theater count doubles. Its per-theater average of $10,321 was easily the highest in the top 10.
Ellen Page, a 20-year-old Canadian actress, stars in the title role as a precocious schoolgirl who gets pregnant and decides to give the baby up for adoption. Critics have raved about the movie, and it has racked up key nominations for the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards, making it an early favorite for Oscar consideration.
The movie comes from Fox Searchlight Pictures, which enjoyed similar success a year ago with "Little Miss Sunshine." But that movie's best weekend was just $7.6 million in 1,602 theaters. It went on to make $60 million, and won Oscars for Alan Arkin's supporting role and rookie scribe Michael Arndt's original screenplay. "Juno" also comes from a first-time writer, Cody Diablo, a former stripper.
"There Will Be Blood," another film generating Oscar buzz ahead of the January 22 nominations announcement, earned $185,525 from just two theaters, one each in New York and Los Angeles. Its theater average of $92,763 is the highest of 2007, beating the $68,969 average for Michael Moore's "Sicko," said distributor Paramount Vantage. Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the period saga about the rise and fall of a turn-of-the-century oilman.
"The Bucket List," a Warner Bros. release starring Nicholson and Freeman as cancer patients who race to enjoy their final days, earned $323,000 from 16 theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, giving it a $20,188 average.
Walt Disney Pictures is a unit of Walt Disney Co. Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are units of News Corp. Warner Bros. Pictures is a unit of Time Warner Inc. Universal Pictures is a unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal. Paramount Vantage is a unit of Viacom Inc.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Mohammad Zargham