A pill-popping helped Bradley Cooper's "Limitless" beat expectations with a $19 million debut.
Bowing in 2,756 theaters, "Limitless" had been tracking to pull in between $15 to $16 million, but managed to shatter those numbers thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign from the studio and the film's stars.
However, drugs were no cure for another sluggish weekend at the box office, when much of America may have been too caught up in March Madness to venture out to the movie theaters.
Overall the box office was down 10 percent from where it was last year when "Alice in Wonderland" was still going at full steam. In the context of a box office down 30% year over year, that's better than recent performances.
"Limitless" held off competition from "Paul" and "The Lincoln Lawyer" to claim the top spot. It represents the first number one debut for the studio, since Relativity began marketing and distributing its own films last winter.
"Our marketing message that this was a thrill ride with a unique angle got through," Kyle Davies, president of theatrical distribution for Relativity Media, told TheWrap. "Going into the weekend it was a head scratcher about who would pull away, but it's satisfying to break away from the pack."
The price tag for "Limitless" reads $27 million, but with the foreign financing and Pennsylvania location tax breaks, Relativity claimed exposure of less than $1 million.
The film was the first shot by newly formed Virgin Produced.
According to Jason Felts, CEO of the new production company, the firm utilized its corporate bretheren extensively, including Virgin America, which briefed its captive audiences on the film after pre-flight safety instructions.
"We really pulled out all the stops," Felts said.
"The Lincoln Lawyer" and "Paul" evenly divided the rest of the adult audience. The Matthew McConaughey vehicle grossed $13.4 million in 2,707 theaters, while the alien comedy racked up $13.2 million in 2,802 locations.
Featuring a repairing of English comics Nick Frost and Simon Pegg ("Hot Fuzz"), Universal said it was positioning "Paul" with an eye toward international audiences. Filmed for $40 million and co-produced by Working Title, the comedy has so far grossed $28.1 million in five territories.
"We're in a great position to recoup our costs. It's a niche film, but it's well liked, which bodes well for the future," Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of distribution, told TheWrap.
As for "The Lincoln Lawyer," Lionsgate tried to differentiate the $40 million R-rated legal thriller from the glut of new releases by partnering with Groupon. The studio sold 130,000 tickets for $6 through the site and about 40,000 of those have been redeemed, which skews the film's true box office total. The average ticket price is, after all, $8.
Showing real staying power, "Rango" dropped just 21 percent and earned $15.3 million. Showing in 3,843 screens, the Johnny Depp animated film saw its grosses surge after Saturday screenings when kids were out of school. The Paramount film's total now stands at $92.5 million over three weeks.
Last weekend's top film, Sony's "Battle: Los Angeles" suffered a steeper 59 percent fall to earn $14.6 million.
Here’s how the weekend’s top 10 shaped up:
1.) "Limitless" ($19m)
2.) "Rango" ($15.3m)
3.) "Battle: Los Angeles" ($14.6m)
4.) "The Lincoln Lawyer" ($13.4m)
5.) "Paul" ($13.2m)
6.) "Red Riding Hood" ($7.3m)
7.) "The Adjustment Bureau" ($5.9m)
8.)"Mars Needs Moms" ($5.3m)
10.)"Hall Pass" ($2.6m)