"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" brought in $30.2 million of good fortune at the box office to debut in first place.
The film based on the first three children's books by Lemony Snicket (search), who is actually author Daniel Handler, knocked the star-driven sequel "Ocean's Twelve" to second place, according to studio estimates released Sunday. Spanglish, a new Sony film starring Tea Leoni (search), Adam Sandler (search) and Spanish actress Paz Vega, made its debut at third with an estimated weekend haul of $9 million.
Final figures were to be released Monday.
"Lemony Snicket" tells the story of a trio of orphans who try to defend themselves from Count Olaf, played by Jim Carrey, who pursues the Baudelaire children by concealing himself as a variety of thinly veiled characters.
Playing in wide release at 3,620 theaters, "Lemony Snicket" averaged $8,343 a cinema.
"Jim Carrey and the books are really the primary driving forces behind it and the marketing seems to have worked very well," said Wayne Lewellen, president of distribution for Paramount.
"Lemony Snicket" was the second hit movie for Paramount from Nickelodeon Movies, which also provided it with "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" that fell out of the top 10 this week but has brought in $76.4 million in five weeks.
"The Aviator," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, opened in 40 theaters in New York, Los Angeles and "resort towns" in an attempt to catch vacationing Academy Awards voters, said Mike Rudnitsky, head of domestic distribution at Miramax.
The film, which was distributed to theaters near ski resorts and in Hawaii and Palm Springs, earned $831,124 with a per screen average of $20,778.
"The exit polls were very high. Movie-goers really enjoyed the performance," Rudnitsky said. "The look of the film on-screen was very powerful for everyone and everyone was very much into the story of Howard Hughes."
"The Aviator," which also features Cate Blanchett as Hughes' legendary love, Katharine Hepburn, will expand to about 1,750 screens on Christmas Day.
Other films in limited release that have been receiving Oscar buzz include Bill Murray's quirky oceanography tale "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and "Million Dollar Baby," with Hilary Swank portraying a woman who tries to improve her life of hard knocks by training as a boxer.
"Life Aquatic" in its second week played on two screens in New York and Los Angeles and brought in $100,595, a drop of only 11 percent from its debut weekend. "Million Dollar Baby" since its opening Wednesday has brought in $233,230 with a per screen average of $29,153.
The success of "Lemony Snickets" continues a trend that has seen family oriented films scoring well at the box office, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
"Lemony Snickets is just another example of a family film that has performed extremely well in the marketplace," Dergarabedian said. "It just seems the family market is insatiable in their need for new entertainment options."
"The Polar Express," in particular, has continued to draw in family audiences, earning $8.6 million to bring its cumulative total over six weeks to $123.6 million. "Polar Express" saw only an 11 percent drop in its audience from the week before, while other top films had steeper falls, including "Ocean's Twelve", which lost 53 percent, and "Blade: Trinity" which lost 59 percent and dropped from second to fifth.
Plane-crash tale "The Flight of the Phoenix," a remake of a 1965 film starring James Stewart, opened in eighth place with $5.2 million.
Hollywood revenues from the top 12 movies were down 25 percent compared to last year, but the numbers were skewed because "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" made $72.6 million during its 2003 debut, Dergarabedian said.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.
1. "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," $30.2 million
2. "Ocean's Twelve," $18.3 million.
3. "Spanglish," $9 million
4. "The Polar Express," $8.6 million.
5. "Blade: Trinity," $6.6 million.
6. "National Treasure," $6.1 million.
7. "Christmas With the Kranks," $5.7 million.
8. "The Flight of the Phoenix," $5.1 million.
9. "Closer," $3.5 million.
10. "The Incredibles," $3.3 million.