"The Lorax" surpassed all box-office expectations in its opening weekend, taking $70.7 million — the biggest opening of 2012 so far and the most ever for a Universal animated film.
Universal's pre-release expectations for the 3D movie were around $40 million.
Warner Bros. had a strong opening weekend, as well. Its R-rated found footage comedy "Project X" debuted to $20.8 million.
And The Weinstein Company saw that Oscar bump it had been waiting for. "The Artist," which won five Academy Awards last Sunday, returned to the top 10 at the box office, taking $3.9 million. The silent, black and white movie, now in its 15th week of release, has grossed $37.1 million domestically.
Overall, the box office was up about 24 percent compared to the same weekend in 2011. This marks the ninth consecutive week that the box office has beaten last year's.
"To have nine weeks in a row up year-over-year just speaks to the quality of the films in the marketplace," Jeff Goldstein, the Warner Bros. executive VP of distribution, told TheWrap Sunday morning. "The audience will come out if you have a movie they want to see."
This weekend, the audience wanted to see "The Lorax."
Universal and Illumination Entertainment's PG-rated adaptation of the Dr. Suess book is now the biggest-opening animated family film that is not a sequel. It is Universal's fourth-biggest opening of all time. And it is the biggest opening weekend for a movie based on a Dr. Suess book.
Until "The Lorax," Screen Gems' "The Vow" had the biggest opening weekend of 2012. That movie debuted to $41.2 million.
And in all of 2011, only a half-dozen movies — "Fast Five," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," " The Hangover: Part II," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" and "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" — opened to more than $70 million.
Also read: 'The Lorax' Finally Gets Dr. Seuss Right
The huge numbers for "The Lorax" are especially encouraging for Universal because family movies tend to have larger multiples than other types of films.
Nikki Rocco, Universal's head of distribution, attributed the film's remarkable box-office success to the movie itself — the audience survey company Cinemascore gave it an "A" — but also to its marketing campaign, which began early, and to its release date.
"Some people said to me, 'Why not open it in the summer?'" Rocco told TheWrap Sunday morning. "Why not now, when there's a lack of family films? 'Journey 2' is the last one, and it is in its fourth week."
She also noted that Universal partnered with more than 70 other companies and organizations, including Mazda, The Nature Conservancy, IHOP, Pottery Barn, HP and Whole Foods, to promote the film.
As expected, "The Lorax" played to families: 68 percent of the audience was children 12 and younger and their parents.
And the movie skewed female. Among children 12 and younger, the audience was 57 percent female. Among those 13 and older, it was 63 percent female.
More than half of the movie's weekend gross came from IMAX and 3D screens. It took $5.4 million at 269 IMAX locations.
In all, "The Lorax," which cost less than $70 million to make, opened at 3,729 locations.
While numbers for "The Lorax" are impressive, don't expect the movie to hold onto the title of year's biggest opening for long. On March 23, Lionsgate releases "The Hunger Games," which could take $100 million.
The other new movie of this weekend, Warner's "Project X," also surpassed expectations.
"We were hoping to get to the mid-teens and of course we got over 20 million," Goldstein said.
Pretty good for a $12 million movie.
Just as "The Lorax" was targeted at families, "Project X" was made for young men. And that's who saw it. The audience for the movie about three high school seniors who throw a party that spins out of control was 58 percent male and 67 percent younger than 25.
And they liked it. Cinemascore gave the movie a "B." The target audience of young men liked it a little better than that, with 70 percent of them giving "Project X" an "A."
Todd Phillips, who produced and directed "The Hangover" and produced, directed and wrote "The Hangover Part II," produced. Michael Bacall, who wrote "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and Matt Drake wrote the screenplay. Newcomer Nima Nourizadeh directed.
The movie opened at 3,055 locations.