Film takes in just over $70 million

Warner Bros.’ bloody, f/x-heavy battle pic “300″ made an outright assault on the B.O. over the weekend, mopping up just over $70 million and bludgeoning any negative reviews in its path.

Playing in more than 3,100 theaters, pic was the third biggest R-rated opener ever — behind “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Passion of the Christ” — and the biggest R-rated opener in March.

Helmer Zack Snyder and graphic novelist Frank Miller’s muscle-bound vision of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae easily decapitated any competish for the No. 1 spot, but B.O. as a whole was robust.

Disney’s “Wild Hogs,” last weekend’s No. 1, held solidly, dipping just 29% to shift $28 million in its second frame and land at No. 2; cume is $77.4 million.

The Mouse House’s PG-rated “Bridge to Terabithia” flew into the third spot, dropping a scant 23%; cume after a month in release is $67 million.

Sony’s “Ghost Rider,” meanwhile, became the first pic released this year to motor past $100 million.

Led by “300,” overall B.O. spiked. The top 10 films combined for more than $136 million vs. the $88.8 million they mustered a year ago over the same frame, when “Failure to Launch” debuted as a No. 1 with $24.4 million.

War pic “300″ becomes just the latest film to be largely skewered by critics but perform well at the B.O.

It scored a per-theater average of $22,567, and drew its eye-popping haul by playing to strong biz across the country, according to Warner Bros. domestic distribution topper Dan Fellman.

As the frame’s only new wide rollout, “300″ smashed expectations; it had been pegged to hit about $40 million, according to its tracking data.

Fellman said the demos for “300″ were equally split between men and women — surprising, given the project’s high violence and machismo — and he pointed to the pic’s Internet-heavy marketing campaign as a major part of its success. Warners had pushed the pic’s trailer on MySpace and other youth-skewing sites.

Reflecting its popularity across many markets, “300″ played to a per-theater average of $16,500 in Salt Lake City, which Fellman called “home of the PG.” Pic hit $28,000 per engagement in Los Angeles and nailed averages of over $24,000 per theater in Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Fellman compared the movie’s success to that of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the 2002 left-field romantic comedy hit that racked up more than $241 million. Pic was another original concept that managed to build a major fanbase though not part of a franchise, a la “Matrix Reloaded”; nor did it attract auds outside the typical moviegoing demo like “The Passion.”

Pic also played particularly well on Imax screens, drawing a $54,500 per-screen average off 62 runs. Imax chairman-prexy Greg Foster said “300″ played into a campaign aimed at the young fanboy crowd.

“We’ve been cultivating the techie crowd of 15- to 24-year-olds who play videogames and watch DVDs,” Foster said. “It’s a (demographic) that’s difficult to get (to theaters), but we finally nailed them.”

Mark Canton, Gianni Nunnari, Jeff Silver and Bernie Goldmann produced the stylized battle pic.

Warners wouldn’t say if there are any plans to turn “300″ — a pic shot entirely in a warehouse in Montreal for about $60 million — into a franchise. (“I don’t know if there’s a ’301,’ ” Fellman said. “Maybe there’s a ’299.’ “

Biggest ever R-rated opener in March had been “Scream 3,” which grabbed a $34.7 million slice in 2000. Miller’s previous pic, “Sin City,” holds the record for April’s biggest R-rated opening at $29.1 million.

Meanwhile, Sony’s Nicolas Cage vehicle “Ghost Rider” gunned its cume to $104.1 million after taking in $6.8 million over the weekend and coming in at No. 4.

DreamWorks’ Eddie Murphy starrer “Norbit” looks destined to also break the $100 million barrier: Pic sat on another $4.3 million in its fifth frame to take cume past $88.3 million.

Paramount serial killer pic “Zodiac,” for which Warners has international rights, rode in just behind “Ghost” at $6.77 million.

Pic’s cume has been somewhat anemic. Despite solid notices from critics, ticket sales dropped almost 50%. David Fincher-helmed film has cut up $23.7 million after two weekends.

New Line’s “The Number 23″ dropped 33% in its third frame. Jim Carrey starrer has carved up $30 million after three weekends. Studio also played sneaks of its family pic “The Last Mimzy” and may increase that movie’s run as a result of positive feedback.

At the bottom of the charts, two films screening less widely — Universal’s “Breach” and Samuel Goldwyn/Roadside Attractions’ “Amazing Grace” — showed strong legs.

Spy thriller “Breach,” after four weeks, is still playing in just over 1,500 theaters. Pic dipped just 28% and has made $28.8 million.

Socially conscious period piece “Grace” moved back into the top 10 in its third weekend as a counterprogramming option. The film, playing 1,000 engagements, has taken in $11.4 million after three weekends.

Paramount Vantage’s “Black Snake Moan” slithered out of the top 10. Landing at No. 11, pic dropped in its second frame by 55%. “Snake” has hissed to $7.2 million in two frames on more than 1,200 screens.

In arthouses over the weekend, IFC’s “Believe in Me” took in $94,246 off 54 screens, while the indie’s “Beyond the Gates” opened with $7,074 off one. Zeitgeist’s “Into Great Silence” took in $22,561 off two.

ThinkFilm’s “Avenue Montaigne” strolled to $100,000 off 17. Cume is $316,000.

Bigger Pictures’ faith-based “The Ultimate Gift” unwrapped $1.2 million off 816. Pic is also being rolled out by Fox Faith.

For Todd McCarthy’s review of “300,” click here.

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