LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Angelina Jolie's new spy thriller "Salt" failed to take the North American box office crown from Leonardo DiCaprio's "Inception," which enjoyed a stronger-than-expected hold in its second weekend.
According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, "Inception" earned $43.5 million during the three days beginning on Friday, with "Salt" at No. 2 with $36.5 million.
Internationally, "Inception" was No. 2 with $56.7 million from 38 markets, behind "Toy Story 3" with $62 million from 43 countries.
Pundits had predicted "Salt" might hit the $40 million mark in the United States and Canada, although distributor Columbia Pictures said the opening was in line with its expectations.
The three-day estimate represents a significant drop from the $50 million openings for each of Jolie's last big films, "Wanted" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
Jolie earned $20 million for "Salt," a timely thriller about Russian sleeper spies preparing to bring the United States to its knees. The high-energy action role was originally envisaged for Tom Cruise, who went on to make the box office dud "Knight and Day" instead.
With a relatively modest $100 million price tag, "Salt" was directed by Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce and co-stars Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ojiofor. Columbia, a unit of Sony Corp, said women accounted for 53 percent of the audience.
"Salt" is expected to make most of its money overseas. It opened promisingly in India and Taiwan, according to Columbia, and will expand to Japan, Russia, South Korea and Brazil next weekend.
"Inception," starring DiCaprio as a thief who steals secrets from deep within people's subconscious, raced to $143.7 million after 10 days, thanks to a drop of just 31 percent from last weekend. Movies generally lose about half of their opening-weekend audience.
"It's driven by word of mouth, it's driven by repeat business already," said Dan Fellman, domestic distribution president at Warner Bros. "When you get that momentum going, it's hard to stop."
The $160 million project was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the English filmmaker responsible for the last two "Batman" movies. Warner Bros. is a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Its international total rose to $84 million, bolstered by No. 1 openings in France, Russia, Australia and Japan.
New at No. 6 with a modest $8 million was the children's book adaptation "Ramona and Beezus" starring Joey King and Disney starlet Selena Gomez.
Distributor 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp, said it had expected a $6 million opening and noted the picture cost just $15 million to make. As expected, the film's primary audience was mothers and daughters.
The Universal Pictures cartoon "Despicable Me" slipped one spot to No. 3 with $24.1 million, taking its total to $161.7 million after just three weekends. Universal is a unit of General Electric Co.
Two Walt Disney Co releases rounded out the top five. The Nicolas Cage dud "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" fell one spot to No. 4 with $9.7 million, taking its total to $42.6 million after 12 days.
"Toy Story 3" held at No. 5 with $9 million. The total for the year's biggest movie rose to $379.5 million. Its foreign haul rose to $351 million.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by John O'Callaghan