Universal Pictures' action spectacle about a giant ape took over the top box-office spot from Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which slipped to second place with $31.2 million and lifted its 10-day total to $112.5 million, according to studio estimates released Sunday.
Premiering at No. 3 with $12.7 million was 20th Century Fox's ensemble comic drama "The Family Stone," featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Luke Wilson and Claire Danes in a tale of an uptight businesswoman meeting her fiance's relations during a holiday visit.
The cowboys-in-love drama "Brokeback Mountain," which led the Golden Globes with seven nominations, broke into the top 10 with $2.4 million playing in just 69 theaters, compared to 3,568 for "King Kong."
Hollywood analysts generally expected "King Kong" to have a debut weekend at least in the $60 million range. Though it came in lower than expected, "King Kong" led Hollywood to a solid weekend, with the top 12 movies grossing $121.2 million, up 22 percent from the same weekend last year.
That was good news heading into the holidays, when studios are counting on a strong finish to help snap a prolonged slump in which movie attendance has fallen 7 percent compared with last year.
Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong" did out-gross the opening weekend of his "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," the first of his J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy trilogy that debuted with $47.2 million. But factoring in a 12 percent rise in admission prices since that 2001 film's release, "King Kong" sold about 7.9 million tickets, 450,000 fewer than "Fellowship of the Ring."
And "King Kong" did not measure up to the first five days of "Fellowship of the Ring," which debuted on a Wednesday and had grossed $75.1 million domestically by Sunday. Also opening Wednesday, "King Kong" got to $66.2 million in its first five days.
Still, distributor Universal was high on the long-term prospects for the film, which received rave reviews both as a visual-effects spectacle and as a drama about a majestic ape that falls for a woman (Naomi Watts).
Along with its domestic haul, "King Kong" took in $80 million overseas in its first five days.
The studio hopes "King Kong" follows the long-term pattern of another three-hour epic, "Titanic," which opened with a modest $28.6 million weekend then sailed on to become the modern box-office champ with $600 million domestically.
"The expectation or the guessing or hypothesizing of what it was going to do is based on a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance over how a three-hour movie plays that doesn't come with legions of fans," said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures, who brushed aside suggestions that "King Kong" had not lived up to expectations. "This is not Tolkien. This is not the `Harry Potter' fan base."
Grosses for "King Kong" jumped 40 percent from Friday to Saturday, a huge increase for a non-family film and a sign that good word-of-mouth was pulling in audiences, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
"A movie like `King Kong' just automatically creates an expectation that it will break all kinds of box-office records," Dergarabedian said. "But much like `Titanic,' which started very slow, sometimes it's not always about opening weekends. Sometimes, it's how the film plays in the long run."
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. "King Kong," $50.15 million.
2. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," $31.2 million.
3. "The Family Stone," $12.7 million.
4. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," $5.9 million.
5. "Syriana," $5.5 million.
6. "Walk the Line," $3.6 million.
7. "Yours, Mine & Ours," $3.4 million.
8. "Brokeback Mountain," $2.4 million.
9. "Just Friends," $1.95 million.
10. "Aeon Flux," $1.7 million.