Matt Damon’s ‘The Martian’ Soars to Stellar $55 Million at Box Office

Estimates put debut of Fox’s Ridley Scott space epic roughly even with “Gravity” for best October opening ever

Ridley Scott, Matt Damon and “The Martian” brought home $55 million at the box office this weekend, as the saga of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet soared within range of the best October movie opening ever. That was more than enough to dethrone “Hotel Transylvania 2” to become the No.1 movie in North America.

Director Scott and star Damon were the main reasons fans turned out in force for the well-reviewed “The Martian,” which is roughly even with the $55.8 million debut of Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic “Gravity” on this weekend two years ago.

But one thing “The Martian” had in its favor that “Gravity” didn’t was getting a big boost from last week’s discovery by real-life scientists of water on Mars and the massive media coverage that followed. Monday’s final figures will determine whether the news helped make “The Martian” a record-breaker.

The weekend’s other wide opener, the R-rated drug cartel saga “Sicario,” took in $12  million and finished third as it expanded from 59 to 2,620 theaters. Lionsgate’s gritty thriller starring Emily Blunt, Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin finished behind Sony’s defending champ “Hotel Transylvania 2,” which held very well with $33 million for second, and just ahead of another second-week film, the Robert DeNiroAnne Hathaway comedy “The Intern,” which grossed $11.6 million for Warner Bros. “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” was fifth with $7.6 million.

“Sicario” received an ‘A-” CinemaScore from its audience, which was 85 percent over the age of 25 and 45 percent female. The latter number had to be encouraging for Lionsgate, which has sought to broaden the film’s appeal to women by tweaking the marketing.

“The Martian” had been expected to pull in around $45 million this weekend with Fox’s forecasts even lower. But an $18 million Friday made clear that the film, produced for $109 million, was going to blast past those projections and was rocketing to profitability. It was the No. 1 movie at the international box office as well, and the $45 million it grossed abroad lifted its worldwide weekend haul over $100 million.

“The confluence of tremendous critical support and the amazing audience reaction is rare and just about always equals success,” Fox Distribution President Chris Aronson told TheWrap. “The Martian” is at 94 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes and received an “A” CinemaScore from audiences, which were 72 percent over the age of 25 and 56 percent male.

“This is first and foremost a phenomenal movie from a master filmmaker and was executed flawlessly,” said Aronson, who believes the question of whether “The Martian” will be able to exceed projections and top “Gravity” for the October record could hinge on to what degree moviegoers seek out 3D and Premium Large Format performances.

“It’s all about offering choices for the moviegoer, and letting them decide how they want to see a film,” he said. The two formats accounted for more than half of the weekend grosses, with PLF screens delivering 11 percent and 3D 45 percent, and contributed to a very strong $14,381 average for the market-high 3,831 theaters that “The Martian” played in. “Gravity” got an even bigger boost, with 3D providing 80 percent of its opening haul.

The opening for “The Martian” marks a return to form for Scott, after misfires with the pricey “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Counselor.” “The Martian” debut is his best sci-fi opening ever, and second overall only to “Hannibal,” which rolled out to $58 million in 2001.

The big debut for “The Martian,” which boasts a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena and Chiwetel Ejiofor, also heightened its profile for Academy Award consideration as the Oscar races begin to take shape.

Another movie with awards ambitions, the Robert Zemeckis-directed “The Walk,” teetered in a special run of 448 IMAX and PLF screens and has taken in a little under $2 million since Wednesday. The film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as French tightrope artist Philippe Petit opens wide next weekend for Sony. An encouraging sign was the 82 percent jump it took from Friday to Saturday on its 365 IMAX screens.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Actor/executive producer Adam Sandler attends the screening of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's 'Hotel Transylvania' at Pacific Theatre at The Grove on September 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)