Seventeen years after its first release, “The Lion King” is again No. 1 at the box office, wildly exceeding pre-release projections by pulling in an estimated $29.3 million.
A 3D re-release propelled the G-rated animated feature far beyond its expected $15 million take and well past the weekend’s three debuts -- all of which had disappointing starts.
The No. 2 movie of the weekend was a holdover from last week. The Warner Bros. PG-13 “Contagion" grossed a surprisingly strong $14.5 million -- almost $2 million more than expected.
FilmDistrict's R-rated "Drive," which grossed an estimated $11 million -- at the low end of its $10-to-$15 million pre-release projection -- was the only new movie in the top three.
The debut for the Ryan Gosling film followed some of the best reviews of the year for any film (evidenced by a 93 percent Rotten Tomatoes score).
Almost shockingly, however, moviegoers had a very different response, giving it a C-minus grade when polled by movie customer-satisfaction grader Cinemascore.
DreamWorks' PG-13 "The Help" grossed $6.4 million in its sixth week, putting it fourth.
Two other new wide releases had disappointing starts:
Sony's R-rated remake of the 1971 thriller "Straw Dogs" underperformed with $5 million and The Weinstein Company's PG-13 "I Don't Know How She Does It" brought in only $4.5 million.
Despite those unexpectedly low numbers, the weekend's biggest surprise was the spectacular performance of "The Lion King," which grossed twice as much as expected.
On top of the domestic $29.3 million, it grossed $12.1 million internationally. Combine that with its cumulative gross from the last 17 years and the film's total take now stands at $825.7 million. It's the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film of all time and the highest-grossing film from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
It is the first reissue to open No. 1 in 14 years. "The Return of the Jedi," re-released in 1997, was the last. "Lion King" also is now the third-highest grossing animated film of all time, after "Shrek 2" and "Toy Story."
"It's always nice to wake up to better-than-expected results, and this is certainly one of them," Dave Hollis, Disney's distribution chief, told TheWrap Sunday morning.
He said the success is due to the strength of the film and to nostalgia.
"It comes back to the theme of the film -- the circle of life," he said. "You've got kids who saw it and loved it and it became part of their world ... Now they themselves have kids and they're excited about bringing their kids to the theaters to see it the way they remember seeing it -- on the big screen."
But it wasn't just families at "The Lion King." Hollis said about 20 percent of the audience was couples, and that many 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows were sold out.
The film played at 2,330 locations, both 3D and 2D.
Even rival studios are tipping their hats to Disney.
"It caught everybody by surprise," the Weinstein Company's distribution chief, Erik Lomis, told TheWrap Sunday morning. "It flies in the face of everything we know about family films doing 3D business, because it did 92 percent of its business in 3D -- and family films are averaging 50-50 at best right now."
As for "Drive," which opened at 2,886 locations, it was produced for under $15 million by Bold Films and Odd Lot Entertainment. It's U.S. distribution rights were purchased by FilmDistrict at AFM last year.
"I'm really happy," said FilmDistrict chief Bob Berney. "It's an extreme and bold film ... It's a blend of art house and genre, and I think our marketing was that way, too. We did this very stylized campaign. It was obviously very review-driven, but also looked like incredible action."
"Straw Dogs," a re-telling of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah movie, was written and directed by Rod Lurie and stars James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland and James Woods.
Pre-release projections had it taking in between $8 million and $10 million. But the thriller grossed only $5 million.
The Weinstein Company's female-driven romantic comedy, "I Don't Know How She Does It," also disappointed, grossing $4.5 million. That movie's estimated budget was in the high teens to low 20s.
The Weinstein Company's Lomis said that "we got hit by 'Lion King.' We played 60 percent over 35 and 80 percent female, and we were counting on that audience to show up, and 'Lion King' did probably twice the most aggressive estimates going into the weekend, so I think that probably hit us pretty hard -- and hopefully, our audience will get to it."
The movie, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, had a Cinemascore of B-minus.
In its second week, Lionsgate's "Warrior" is officially a disappointment. The PG-13 fight movie starring Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, couldn't gross $10 million after two weeks -- despite great reviews and strong buzz.
Meanwhile, DreamWorks' "The Help" continued to pull in respectable numbers, a month and a week after its release. The '60s-era drama, No. 4 this weekend, grossed $6.4 million at 3,014 locations.
And Universal's "Johnny English Reborn" opened this weekend in 15 territories. The Rowan Atkinson movie grossed $11,7 million at 1,372 locations, giving Atkinson the biggest opening weekend of his career.
The movie cost about $45 million to make and opens in the U.S. on Oct. 28.
Here's how the 10 domestic films shaped up this weekend:
"The Lion King" ($29.3M)
"The Help" ($6.43M)
"Straw Dogs" ($5M)
"I Don't Know How She Does It" ($4.5M)
"The Debt" ($2.94M)
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ($2.62M)