Last week's news of another terror plot against airliners apparently did not dampen audience appetite for Oliver Stone's film "World Trade Center." The Paramount Pictures release beat expectations by earning $19 million over the weekend to place it third at the weekend box office.
The big surprise of the weekend was the high-school dance film "Step Up" from The Walt Disney Co., which placed second with a box office take of $21 million.
"It stepped up out of nowhere and surprised everyone," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "It was totally unexpected."
Disney flooded the Internet and music television networks with videos of dance numbers from the film, a strategy that broadened the audience from the target female teen demographic.
While 70 percent of the audience was female, about one-quarter were in the 18-24 age range, according to exit polling.
The performance of the top 12 films was up 6.35 percent from the same weekend last year, making it the fourth weekend in a row that the box office has outpaced last year's levels.
The diversity of film offerings played a big role in generating attendance, analysts said.
"There is so much variety. You pick a genre and you can find a movie," Dergarabedian said.
The performance of "World Trade Center" marked the best weekend debut ever for director Stone, whose previous controversial films such as "JFK and "Nixon" made many wonder how he would portray events in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The film has earned $26.8 million since it opened nationwide Wednesday.
News of a foiled terrorist plot allegedly targeting planes heading to the United States had prompted speculation that moviegoers might shun a film recounting efforts to rescue two police officers caught under the rubble of the Twin Towers.
Thursday morning, Paramount executives even considered scaling back advertising for the film, but they decided to leave its marketing campaign in place.
"We really don't know the answer" to whether current events affected attendance, said Jim Tharp, president of distribution at Paramount. "Word of mouth got out very quickly and impacted the weekend in a positive manner."
"World Trade Center" was the second film this year to revisit 9/11. Last April's "United 93" from Universal opened in far fewer theaters and brought in $11.5 million in its opening weekend.
In its third week, the independent film "Little Miss Sunshine" continued its impressive run.
The film, released by Fox Searchlight, brought in an average of $16,993 per screen in 29 cities for a total of $2.6 million over the weekend. The movie is set to open wider at the end of the month.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," $23 million.
2. "Step Up," $21 million
3. "World Trade Center," $19 million.
4. "Barnyard," 10.1 million.
5. "Pulse," $8.5 million
6. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," 7.2 million.
7. "Zoom," 4.6 million.
8. "The Descent," $4.6 million.
9. "Miami Vice," $4.5 million.
10. "Monster House," $3.3 million.