‘Gravity’ Leaves Tom Hanks’ ‘Captain Phillips’ In Box-Office Wake With Huge 2nd Week (Video)

Somali piracy thriller debuts strongly with $26 million but space streaks to $44 million. “Machete Kills” tanks

The Sandra Bullock-George Clooney 3D space epic “Gravity” maintained its lofty orbit above box office rivals, rocketing to a $44 million second weekend and holding off a strong challenge from the Tom Hanks thriller “Captain Phillips.”

Sony’s Oscar hopeful established itself as a box-office force in its own right with a better-than expected $26 million three-day haul, the best live-action opening for Hanks since 2009’s “Angels and Demons.”

The family film “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” was third with $14 million but no other movie cracked $4 million for the three days. The weekend’s other wide opener, Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete Kills,” was dead on arrival, and bunched with holdovers “Runner Runner” and “Prisoners” at around $3.6 million.

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Warner Bros. looked to capitalize on last week’s stunning $55 million debut of director Alfonso Cuaron’s space saga, and it paid off. The studio increased the number of locations by 85 to a market-high 3,660 theaters, the majority of which were 3D, and saw just a 21 percent drop-off from last week.

Anything less than 50 percent is considered good, so the hold by “Gravity” is something special and signals the potential for a long and lucrative box-office run that is likely to see momentum boosts if awards nominations roll in as expected. It’s the best non-holiday second-week hold ever for a movie that opened with more than $55 million.

The “Gravity” grosses again were driven by 3D – which accounted for $36.2 million or 82 percent of the receipts — and Imax, which brought in $9 million, or 20 percent of the take. That’s the best second weekend ever at Imax, ahead of the $8.9 million that “The Dark Knight Rises” brought in last year, and is all the more impressive coming out of the summer blockbuster season.

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“It’s word of mouth” beamed Warner Bros. head of distribution Dan Fellman on Sunday, and the numbers backed him up. After taking in $12.7 million on Friday, “Gravity” skyrocketed to $18.5 million on Saturday.

Fellman said “Gravity” was broadening and playing younger after skewing older in its first week. “You don’t put up the kind of numbers we are without playing to all ages.

“We’re even starting to see repeat business,” Fellman said, citing studio numbers that showed 6 percent of Friday’s audience were second-time viewers.

So far, “Gravity” has taken in $123 million domestically. After adding $28 million from 38 overseas markets this weekend, the foreign total is up to $68 million an the wordwide figure is at $191 million.

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Sony execs see a comparable long-playing scenario for “Captain Phillips,” which like “Gravity” is a major hit with critics. First-night audiences agreed, giving the fact-based tale an “A” CinemaScore.

The studio would love to see their film, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Billy Ray, follow a box-office trajectory comparable to last year’s “Argo.” Ben Affleck‘s hostage drama also opened at this time of year against a box-office juggernaut in “Taken 2.” “Argo” opened to $19 million and went to make $232 million globally and won the Best Picture Oscar.

The “Captain Phillips” audience skewed male (52 percent) and older, with 62 percent over the age of 35. Sony distribution chief Rory Bruer credited positive word of mouth with pushing “Captain Phillips” beyond the expectations of the studio and analysts.

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“It’s people talking about a performance by Tom Hanks that you don’t want to miss,” he said Sunday. “The movie really is emotional and incredible story telling, and this reminds people of what an incredible actor he is.”

Star power – or stunt casting, really – couldn’t save Robert Rodriguez’s R-rated exploitation action film “Machete Kills.”

It featured Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson and Sofia Vergara – in a machine-gun bra, no less – along with Danny Trejo and Michelle Rodriguez.

But it didn’t come close to the $11 million opening of the 2010 original, leaving distributor Open Road to hope it can match the strong DVD afterlife of that film.