Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- did nearly $98 million, up 43 percent from $68 million last year.
THE TOP TEN
DreamWorks and Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated time travel fantasy drama The Time Machine landed atop the chart with a fantastic ESTIMATED $22.5 million at 2,944 theaters ($7,643 per theater).
Time's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend. The film is being released domestically by DreamWorks and internationally by Warner Bros., which co-financed its production.
"There were only a handful of movies released in the first half of March that ever grossed more than $20 million, so we're pretty happy about this," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said Sunday morning.
"The tracking going into the weekend had indicated maybe a $15 million opening. So this is well above expectations based on tracking."
Focusing on the film's audience composition, Tharp noted, "I think we got the sci-fi fans along with young males. An indicator of that is that in locations where school was out for spring break, there were extremely strong grosses coming out of those theaters. As spring break rolls throughout the country, the movie should hold pretty well and do well mid-week."
Time is the latest film to perform strongly at the box office despite an unfriendly reception by the critics. "I think on any wide release, the reviews can either help a little or hurt a little, but it's not something that's drastic at all," Tharp said. "With limited release movies when you play upscale markets, then obviously they mean a lot. But on a wide release, reviews can help a little or hurt a little, but that's all."
Paramount and Icon Productions' R rated Vietnam war drama We Were Soldiers slipped one peg to second place in its second week, but held very well with a still powerful ESTIMATED $14.4 million (-29%) at 3,143 theaters (theater count unchanged; ($4,598 per theater). Its cume is approximately $40.8 million.
"We're very happy with the hold on Soldiers," Paramount Distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "We took a bigger drop on Friday. It was off 37 percent on Friday, but Saturday was only off 24 percent. I'm estimating today off 26 percent, but it could be a little better than that or a little more.
"It's really strong. We know it's playing to an older audience and they just don't come out that strongly on Friday. We know the audience last week was a little older. 73 percent of the audience was over 25."
Asked where Soldiers is heading, Lewellen noted, "If the picture holds at this level again this coming weekend, it could get into the $90-100 million range. That would be a multiple of five times the opening weekend ($20.2 million), which is really strong playability, which we do have on this picture."
New Line's R rated urban appeal buddy comedy All About the Benjamins opened in second place to a muscular ESTIMATED $10.13 million at 1,505 theaters ($6,728 per theater).
"Benjamins is right where we figured it would be," New Line Distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "We're very pleased. We've had a long association with Ice Cube and he's delivered for us once again. His last picture for us was Next Friday and he's got The Friday After Next at Thanksgiving for us."
Miramax and Universal's R rated romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights fell sharply in its second week, down two slots to fourth place with a less appealing ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-42%) at 2,399 theaters (+174 theaters; $2,959 per theater). Its cume is approximately $22.9 million.
New Line's PG-13 rated man-against-the-system drama John Q dropped two rungs to fifth place in its fourth week, still alive and well with an ESTIMATED $6.0 million (-30%) at 2,382 theaters (-74 theaters; $2,519 per theater). Its cume is approximately $59.1 million, heading for $70 million in domestic theaters.
"John Q is holding up very nicely," New Line's David Tuckerman said. "It's hit a nerve with the American public and they're enjoying the hell out of the movie!"
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated animated Return to Never Land slid two notches to sixth place in its fourth week, still showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $4.7 million (-32%) at 2,498 theaters (-120 theaters; $1,869 per theater). Its cume is approximately $41.7 million.
Universal and Spyglass Entertainment's PG-13 afterlife thriller Dragonfly fell two pegs to seventh place in its third week with a calmer ESTIMATED $4.06 million (-39%) at 2,431 theaters (-76 theaters; $1,670 per theater). Its cume is approximately $24.9 million.
Directed by Tom Shadyac, it stars Kevin Costner.
Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama A Beautiful Mind -- which has eight Oscar nominations including best picture and saw director Ron Howard win the Directors Guild of America's award Saturday night -- held on to eighth place in its 12th week with a still solid ESTIMATED $3.91 million (-16%) at 1,795 theaters (-167 theaters; $2,180 per theater). Its cume is approximately $144.3 million, heading for $150 million-plus, depending on how well it does Oscar night.
Universal's PG rated family comedy Big Fat Liar fell two rungs to ninth place in its fifth week with an OK ESTIMATED $3.43 million (-31%) at 2,074 theaters (-158 theaters; $1,655 per theater). Its cume is approximately $43.3 million.
Liar, which was made for only about $15 million, should be very profitable for Universal.
Rounding out the Top Ten again this week was New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, still holding well in its 12th week with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million (-22%) at 1,210 theaters (-93 theaters; $2,149 per theater). Its cume is approximately $291.1 million, heading for $300 million or more in domestic theaters, depending on how it performs Oscar night.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Paramount Classics' PG-13 rated comedy drama Festival in Cannes to an encouraging ESTIMATED $0.04 million at 6 theaters ($6,625 per theater).
Written and directed by Henry Jaglom with additional writing by Victoria Foyt, it stars Anouk Aimee, Greta Scacchi, Maximilian Schell, Ron Silver and Zack Norman.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Lions Gate Films' R rated drama Monster's Ball, which has two Oscar nominations, went wider in its 11th week with an okay ESTIMATED $1.65 million (-9%) at 696 theaters (+36 theaters; $2,365 per theater). Its cume is approximately $15.4 million.
USA Films' R rated whodunit Gosford Park, which has seven Oscar nominations including best picture and won the Writers Guild of America's best original screenplay award Saturday night, added a few more theaters in its 11th week, holding well with an ESTIMATED $1.6 million (-17%) at 918 theaters (+3 theater; $1,725 per theater). Its cume is approximately $33.2 million.
USA Films' R rated romantic comedy Monsoon Wedding added theaters in its third week with a still festive ESTIMATED $0.78 million at 76 theaters (+65 theaters; $10,250 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
"We opened in 12 new markets and the print average in those markets for 25 or 30 theaters is going to be around $13,000," USA Films distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning. "The picture's doing extremely well and we're very happy about it."
Miramax Zoe Films' R rated French comedy Amélie widened in its 19th week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.63 million (-1%) at 254 theaters (+12 theaters; $2,480 per theater. Its cume is approximately $28.8 million.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it stars Audrey Tautou.
Miramax's R rated romantic comedy Italian For Beginners widened in its eighth week to a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.35 million at 79 theaters (+13 theaters; $4,430 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.1 million.
Directed by Lone Scherfig, it stars Anders Berthelsen.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $97.82 million, up about 43.31 percent from last year when they totaled $68.26 million.
Key films for this three-day weekend were down about 2.29% from the previous weekend of this year's total of $100.11 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' second week of The Mexican was first with $12.24 million at 2,959 theaters ($4,138 per theater); and New Line's opening week of 15 Minutes was second with $10.52 million at 2,337 theaters ($4,503 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $22.7 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $36.9 million.