If this were a Major League Baseball divisional race, you'd have to hope Sony's "Moneyball" would qualify for the wild card.
The biopic, which stars Brad Pitt, grossed a strong $20.6 million this weekend, according to studio estimates. That was good enought to beat "Moneyball's" pre-release projections but came just short of catching the phenomenal $22.1 million weekend No. 2 performance of Disney's "Lion King" 3D re-release.
Warner/Alcon Entertainment family film "Dolphin Tale" was a close third at $20.3 million, and could end up surpassing "Moneyball" once final revenue tallies are made Monday morning.
Lionsgate's Taylor Lautner vehicle "Abduction" finished the weekend in fourth place with $11.2 million -- within its pre-release projection range.
Open Road thriller "Killer Elite," meanwhie, missed its mark with only $9.5 million for the weekend.
The domestic market was up 21 percent from the same weekend last year, putting overall revenue for 2011 almost flat with 2010 -- a rather remarkable feat for a box office down more than 20 percent after the first quarter.
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On the international side, Sony's "Smurfs" continued its huge run, adding $12.9 million to its foreign total -- the animated film has grossed $502.8 million worldwide.
Indeed, Sunday morning was a good one for Sony, with its marketing department able to attract an audience base that was 49 percent female to "Moneyball."
Based on Michael Lewis' best-selling 2003 book, "Moneyball" focuses on the front office of the mid-market Oakland A's, which used new-age player statistics a decade back to produce an unlikely playoff run on a shoestring player payroll of just $41 million (i.e. meal money for Yankees star Derek Jeter).
"With baseball as a backdrop, we really needed to get out the fact that this is that underdog story with incredible performances and a few laughs along the way," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide theatrical distribution for Sony.
Starting with the Major League All Star game in July, Sony began running ads targeting men in the usual places you find men on cable television -- ESPN, TNT, Comedy Central.
But the ads focused not so much on the baseball but the inspirational underdog themes -- Pitt playing maverick A's general manager Billy Beane, who in one TV spot, has his own daughter telling him that he's about to be fired.
These ads also ran during "Dancing With the Stars" and "Glee." Pitt even appeared on "Ellen" last week.
Not only was the audience composition balanced, reception was strong. The film garnered an "A" grade from movie customer-satisfaction ranker Cinemascore. It also received a 94 percent score from Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year.
Shot for just over $50 million, the film's arrival into 2,993 theaters Friday seems almost as unlikely as the A's making the playoffs nine years ago on a payroll one fourth the size of the New York Yankees.
Steven Soderbergh was all set to direct the movie in 2009, but Sony yanked the plug over creative differences.
The picture was brought back to life with Bennett Miller in the director's chair and the script in the hands of the fast-talking Aaron Sorkin.
"This is a really solid, solid opening," Bruer added. "This film is going to be around for a while."
Like those 2002 Oakland A's, who eventually succumbed to playoff defeat at the hands of the Yankees and their $125 million payroll, "Moneyball" encountered rather stern opposition from Disney's "Lion King" in the box office pennant race.
With Disney converting its 17-year-old handrawn classic to 3D for Blu-ray home viewing, and deciding to put it out into 2,330 theaters almost on a whim, the studio has now taken in $61.7 million after two weekends of release.
"Not every film is 'The Lion King' -- there's a judiciousness that has to be involved here," said Disney theatrical distribution chief Dave Hollis, noting that the studio isn't going to rush all of its hand-drawn classics into 3D conversion.
He did acknoweldge, however, that Disney is "looking for other films in the library that could work."
As for the weekend's other new releases, Warner's "Dolphin Tale" also beat its pre-release estimates (around $16 million - $18 million) while convincing about 50 percent of its family audience to see the PG film in 3D.
Starring an ensemble cast that featured Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson, the film was shot by Alcon on a budget of around $37 million.
Like "Moneyball," "Dolphin Tale" was also well-received, grading out at a rare "A-plus" from Cinemascore. Critics, meanwhile, collectively gave it an 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lionsgate's "Abduction," meanwhile, wasn't as welcomed, with critics collectively ranking Twilight star Lautner's Jason Borne-like performance at 3 percent.
But the audience that counted -- girls 18 and under -- gave the film an A-minus Cinemascore grade. And the movie -- which looked pretty dead on Friday and set to come in well under $10 million for the weekend -- upticked 21 percent on Saturday
With foreign sales, Lionsgate officials insist they'll end up in profit on a movie that cost in the mid-$30 million range to produce.
"Killer Elite," meanwhile, also came into the market with soft reviews (23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and some brand confusion (it is not a remake of Sam Peckinpah's 1975 film "The Killer Elite").
Shot for around $70 million by Australia's Omnilab Media, however, the film did provide fledgling distributor Open Road with some star power for its first-ever release -- Jason Statham and Clive Owen star in the violence-filled R-rated thrill ride, with Robert DeNiro adding his supporting chops.
With Open Road committing only to the prints and advertising expenses, "Killer Elite's" $9.5 million performance missed a bar that was in the $11 million to $13 million range. But again, officials for the distribution company -- a joint effort launched by exhibitors Regal and AMC -- insist it's good enough for the project to be considered profitable.
Up next for Open Road: action drama "The Grey," directed by Joe Carnahan and starring Liam Neeson, on Jan. 27.
One other notable release this weekend: Relativity put Gerard Butler action film "Machine Gun Preacher" into four L.A. and NYC locations, grossing a middling $44,000 for its trouble.
Here's how the top 10 finished:
"The Lion King" ($22.1m)
"Dolphin Tale" ($20.3m)
"Killer Elite" ($9.5m)
"The Help" ($4.4m)
"Straw Dogs" ($2.1m)
"I Don't Know How She Does It" ($2.1m)