The power of Anthony Hopkins playing a priest compelled just enough moviegoers to make Warner's "The Rite" the No. 1 film at the domestic box office, grossing an estimated $15 million this weekend, according to studio data.
A handful of other films took in $11 million each this weekend – notably the Ocar-nominated "The King's Speech" – still leaving the box office a weak 16 percent behind its performance last year.
"The Rite" came in on the low side of pre-release tracking for the exorcism-themed film, which had a production costs of around $40 million while garnering a B score from Cinemascore.
"We predicted a gross in the range of $14 million to $16 million, and we came in right in the middle," said Dan Fellman, president of distribution for Warner Bros.
Some tracking firms had "The Rite" grossing $18 million or slightly more.
Oscar nominees did brisk business, notably The Weinstein Company's contender "The King's Speech," which surged 41 percent to take in $11.1 million at 2,557 theaters. The film led the nominations pack with 12 nods from the voting academy.
The weekend's other new wide release, CBS Films' low-budget remake of the Charles Bronson ode to pro killing, "The Mechanic," grossed $11.5 million, beating its studio's publicly stated estimate of around $8 million.
The opening was in line with a typical start for "Mechanic" star Jason Statham, noted CBS Films distribution chief Steven Friedlander.
With CBS acquiring North American rights to the R-rated film for around $4 million from Avi Lerner's Millennium Films, Friedlander added, "We're thrilled with this number."
Overall, the domestic box office was only down around 16 percent — which is actually welcome news considering the 30 percent deficit it had been running through late-December and early-to-mid January. Year-to-year comparisons to the "Avatar"-led 2010 market has not been kind to the 2011 books.
Movie exhibitors got some relief from the East Coast weather with storms on Thursday and Friday subsiding by the weekend.
Among smaller releases, "From Prada to Nada" — the first film from the new Latin-targeted Pantelion label being jointly launched by Lionsgate and Televisa — grossed an estimated $1.1 million playing at 256 U.S. locations.
Costing just over $3 million to produce — with prints and advertising coming in at about the same price — "From Prada" is the initial romantic-comedy prototype for the division.
And for the most part, it did what Lionsgate and Televisa hoped, scoring an audience that was 71 percent Latino and 71 percent female … albeit one that was also slightly off-target, in that 70 percent of patrons were over the age of 20.
Roadside Attractions' "Biutiful" debuted in 57 theaters and grossed $460,916 after a brief Oscar qualifying run last year. The Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-directed movie received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, as well as a Best Actor nomination for star Javier Bardem.
Other Academy Award-nominated films found expanded audiences, including Fox Searchlight's "127 Hours," which grossed $2.1 million after a major expansion to 916 theaters; and Weinstein's "Blue Valentine," which took in $1.2 million while expanding to 415 locations.
Here's a look a the weekend's top 10:
"The Rite" ($15.0m)
"No Strings Attached" ($13.7m)
"The Mechanic" ($11.5m)
"The Green Hornet" ($11.5m)
"The King's Speech" ($11.1m)
"True Grit" ($7.6m)
"The Dilemma" ($5.5m)
"Black Swan" ($5.1m)
"The Fighter" ($4.1m)
"Yogi Bear" ($3.2m)