Ben Stiller's "Night at the Museum" was the main exhibit at theaters, debuting with $30.8 million to lead a rush of new movies over the holiday weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday.
Starring Stiller as a guard at a museum where exhibits come alive at night, the comedy exceeded expectations for 20th Century Fox, which had been counting on a bit more than $20 million, said head of distribution Bruce Snyder.
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, Sony's "The Pursuit of Happyness," slipped to second with $15 million, raising its 10-day total to $53.3 million.
Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky Balboa" lived up to its underdog theme, overcoming geriatric-boxer jokes to debut at No. 3 with a solid $12.5 million over the weekend and a total of $22.1 million since opening Wednesday.
Released by MGM, "Rocky Balboa" is Stallone's sixth movie about the Philadelphia street bruiser who becomes a champion fighter, this one following the nearly 60-year-old Rocky in the ring against the reigning heavyweight king.
MGM anticipated the jeers of fans about Rocky stepping back in the ring, tailoring its earliest movie trailers to that idea, with "characters saying, `Why are you doing this? You gotta be kidding,'" said Clark Woods, the studio's head of distribution. "It made the audience comfortable with this concept right away. They were going to say it themselves, so we gave it to them."
Universal's "The Good Shepherd," a saga about the early days of the CIA directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, opened in fourth place with $10 million.
The weekend's other new wide release, the Warner Bros. football drama "We Are Marshall," opened weakly with $6.6 million to come in at No. 6. The movie stars Matthew McConaughey as a coach who rebuilds West Virginia's Marshall University team after the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 players, coaches and fans.
Christmas weekend always is crowded as studios cram in family flicks and films angling for awards attention. This holiday weekend seemed even more packed than usual, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
"I think the movies are beating up on each other a little bit because there's so many jockeying for position," Dergarabedian said. "I don't know how people find time to see all these films. I think it's probably overwhelming for a lot of movie-goers."
A flurry of movies opened well in limited release to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, including Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which took in $76,000 in five theaters. Released by Warner Bros., the film is Eastwood's companion piece to his earlier World War II epic "Flags of Our Fathers," the new movie telling the story of Iwo Jima from the perspective of Japanese soldiers.
Sony Pictures Classics' "Curse of the Golden Flower," director Zhang Yimou's action tale starring Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li in a story of bloody palace intrigue in ancient China, took in $489,000 in 60 theaters.
Warner Independent's "The Painted Veil," with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's romantic tragedy in 1920s China, premiered with $44,000 in four theaters.
"Venus," Miramax's comic drama starring Peter O'Toole as an elderly actor whose rusty libido is aroused by a saucy young woman, opened with $36,000 in three theaters.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Wednesday.
1. "Night at the Museum," $30.8 million.
2. "The Pursuit of Happyness," $15 million.
3. "Rocky Balboa," $12.5 million.
4. "The Good Shepherd," $10 million.
5. "Charlotte's Web," $8 million.
6. "Eragon," $7.15 million.
7. "We Are Marshall," $6.6 million.
8. "Happy Feet," $5.1 million.
9. "The Holiday," $5 million.
10. "The Nativity Story," $4.65 million.