Universal launched "U-571" to over $20 million, sinking its Easter Weekend box office competition.
Hollywood had anticipated big action from the PG-13 World War II submarine drama given its 17% first-choice tracking score going into the weekend.
"U-571" sailed full speed ahead into 2,583 theaters with a killer ESTIMATED $20.28 million ($7,850 per theater). Its per theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
"This is a tremendous opening for a film of its nature," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "It's the biggest submarine film (opening ever). It's bigger than 'Crimson Tide.' It's bigger than 'Hunt For Red October.' Jonathan Mostow is a very talented director, who was able to give audiences a thrill ride. The exit polls were all outstanding, indicating that audiences are going to embrace this film for weeks to come."
New Line's kick off of "Love & Basketball" was a high-scoring number two with a winning ESTIMATED $8.38 million at 1,237 theaters ($6,770 per theater).
The PG-13 rated drama is targeted to under-25 African-Americans.
Referring to last week's 15% first-choice tracking scores, which had suggested an even stronger opening, New Line distribution head David Tuckerman said Sunday morning, "Before all this started with the tracking, we thought we'd be between $8-9 million. The tracking got us hyped up.
"Also, almost everybody's down from Friday to Saturday. We should have a big Sunday. Traditionally, African-Americans like to go to the movies on Sunday."
Facing direct competition from "U-571" for adult male moviegoers, Paramount's R rated military trial drama "Rules of Engagement" fell two notches in its third week but held its own very well with an ESTIMATED $8.0 million (-27%) at 3,220 theaters (+30 theaters; $2,484 per theater). Its cume is approximately $43.0 million.
"Frankly, I thought we'd be down a minimum of 35%," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "Our mid-weeks last week were exceptionally strong. So I think we're (heading for) $60-65 million."
Columbia's PG-13 rated dramatic comedy "28 Days" skidded two rungs to fourth place in its second week, holding nicely with an ESTIMATED $7.4 million (-28%) at 2,523 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,933 per theater). Its cume is approximately $22.2 million.
"I think down 28% is a nice drop," Sony Pictures releasing president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "Probably, we'll have over $25 million in by the end of the second week. So certainly it seems on course to do over $40 million. That'll make us some money. We'll be a little ahead of our production costs. I think Sandra Bullock really remains very reliable (as a star whose movies audiences want to see)."
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13 rated romantic comedy "Keeping the Faith" dipped two slots to fifth place in its second week, holding strongly with an ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-10%) at 2,158 theaters (+6 theaters; $3,386 per theatre). Its cume is approximately $18.7 million.
Directed by Edward Norton, it stars Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman and Norton.
Universal's "Erin Brockovich" fell one notch to sixth place in its sixth weekend, still holding nicely with an ESTIMATED $5.55 million (-21%) at 3,056 theaters (-14 theaters; $1,815 per theater). Its cume is approximately $107.4 million.
The R rated dramatic comedy was co-financed by Universal, which is distributing it domestically, and by Columbia, which is releasing it internationally. The two studios are 50-50 partners in the picture.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it stars Julia Roberts, Albert Finney and Aaron Eckart.
DreamWorks' PG rated animated comedy "The Road To El Dorado" dropped two rungs in its fourth week to seventh place with a still colorful ESTIMATED $5.1 million (-17%) at 3,170 theaters (-53 theaters; $1,609 per theater). Its cume is approximately $41.8 million.
Directed by Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul, it features the voices of Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante and Edward James Olmos.
MGM's PG rated romantic comedy "Return to Me" slid two slots in its third week to eighth place with a quiet ESTIMATED $3.8 million (-24%) at 2,320 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,640 per theater). Its cume is approximately $21.0 million.
Directed by Bonnie Hunt, "Return" cost only about $24 million to make. It stars David Duchovny and Minnie Driver.
Universal's PG-13 rated thriller "The Skulls" slipped one notch to ninth place in its fourth week with a slow ESTIMATED $2.83 million (-30%) at 2,047 theaters (-362 theaters; $1,380 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.4 million.
Rounding out the Top Ten was New Line's R rated suspense thriller "Final Destination," down one peg in its sixth weekend and holding well with an ESTIMATED $2.78 million (-9%) at 1,305 theaters (-204 theaters; $2,126 per theater). Its cume is approximately $42.8 million.
Directed by James Wong, it stars Devon Sawa.
Last weekend also saw the arrival of Warner Bros.' R rated youth appeal drama "Gossip" with little to talk about in 12th place with a disappointing ESTIMATED $2.34 million at 1,525 theaters ($1,534 per theater).
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, it stars James Marsden, Lena Headey, Norman Reedus, Kate Hudson, Marisa Coughlan and Joshua Jackson.
Paramount Classics' R rated drama about teen suicide, "The Virgin Suicides" went into limited release, placing 20th with a sexy ESTIMATED $0.24 million at 18 theaters ($13,460 per theater).
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, it stars James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett.
Saturday night saw two rounds of national sneak previews. New Line held 1,200 sneaks of its PG-13 rated time travel thriller "Frequency." It was the film's second set of Saturday sneaks, following 800 well-attended showings one week earlier.
"They were better than last week. We're trying to figure out exactly how much better," New Line distribution head David Tuckerman said. "My fax broke down this morning and (with the opening of 'Love & Basketball') that's why I'm running so late."
Directed by Gregory Hoblit, it stars Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel.
"Frequency" opens Apr. 28 at about 2,500 theaters.
There also were Saturday night sneaks of 20th Century Fox's comedy drama "Where the Heart Is." No details were available Sunday morning.
Directed by Matt Williams, it stars Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing and Joan Cusack.
"Heart" opens wide Apr. 28.
On the expansion front, Miramax's R rated comedy "East Is East" went wider in its second week, placing 21st with an encouraging ESTIMATED $0.22 million at 18 theaters (+14 theaters; $12,111 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.3 million.
Produced by Leslee Udwin and directed by Damien O'Donnell, "East" stars Om Puri and Linda Bassett.
"It will go into about 35 runs next Friday," Miramax senior vice president, marketing, David Kaminow said Sunday morning.
USA Films went wider with its R rated drama "Joe Gould's Secret," placing 22nd in its third week with a slow ESTIMATED $0.089 million at 26 theaters (+10 theaters; $3,430 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.3 millio .
Directed by Stanley Tucci, it stars Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $84.41 million, up about 47.49% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $57.23 million.
This weekend's key film gross was up about 10.67% from this year's previous weekend, when key films grossed $76.27 million.
Last year, Warner Bros.' fourth week of "The Matrix" was first with $12.64 million at 2,903 theaters ($4,355 per theater); and Universal's second week of "Life" was second with $11.26 million at 2,597 theaters ($4,335 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $23.9 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $28.6 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES
Based on business by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more), last weekend's top six distributors were:
New Line was third with two films ("Love & Basketball" and "Final Destination"), grossing an ESTIMATED $11.15 million or 13.2% of the market.
Paramount was fourth with one film ("Rules of Engagement"), grossing an ESTIMATED $8.00 million or 9.5% of the market.
Sony Pictures Releasing (Columbia, TriStar, Screen Gems) was fifth with one film ("28 Days"), grossing an ESTIMATED $7.40 million or 8.8% of the market.
(11)American Psycho/Lions Gate: Theaters: 1,242 (+5) Gross: $2.7 million (-45%) Average per theater: $2,176 Cume: $9.7 million
(12)Gossip/Warner Bros.: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(13)High Fidelity/BV/Touchstone: Theaters: 1,231 (+2) Gross: $2.3 million (-14%) Average per theater: $1,869 Cume: $21.2 million
(14)Fantasia 2000/BV/Disney: Theaters: 53 (-1) (all IMAX) Gross: $2.0 million (+36%) Average per theater: $38,632 Cume: $45.9 million (domestic)
(15)Romeo Must Die/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 1,439 (-385) Gross: $1.42 million (-47%) Average per theater: $983 Cume: $52.2 million
(16)American Beauty/DreamWorks: Theaters: 1,130 (-337) Gross: $1.4 million (-30%) Average per theater: $1,239 Cume: $127.0 million
(17)Where the Money Is/USA Films: Theaters: 1,538 (0) Gross: $1.33 million (-47%) Average per theater: $865 Cume: $4.7 million
(18) Ready to Rumble/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 1,672 (-913) Gross: $1.01 million (-63%) Average per theater: $601 Cume: $11.3 million
(19)My Dog Skip/Warner Bros./Alcon Ent.: Theaters: 937 (-86) Gross: $0.59 million (+3%) Average per theater: $630 Cume: $32.4 million
(20)Mission to Mars/BV/Touchstone: Theaters: 508 (-254) Gross: $0.4 million (-40%) Average per theater: $795 Cume: $58.8 million
(21)THE VIRGIN SUICIDES/Paramount Classics: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(22)East Is East/Miramax: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(23)Joe Gould's Secret/USA Films: (see EXPANSIONS above)