Nolan psych heist stays strong into second frame

Moviegoers opted for less “Salt” with their popcorn this weekend and instead seasoned Warner Bros.’ “Inception” with an estimated chart-topping $43.5 million in its second outing.

Sony’s Angelina Jolie action thriller still played strongly, debuting in the No. 2 spot with $36.5 million at 3,612 engagements.

Warner’s cerebral pic retained its box office kick, down a slight 31% from last weekend, for a hefty Stateside cume of $143.7 million.

Entering the weekend, some B.O. pundits questioned whether “Inception” would translate well in repeat frames or whether auds would go for “Salt,” a more traditional summer pic. Still, sizable returns for both films helped boost the sesh approximately 8% over the same weekend last year.

The frame’s other wide entry, 20th Century Fox’s kidlit adaptation “Ramona and Beezus,” played nicely with its core young femme and family demos, scoring an estimated $8 million at 2,719 engagements. With a budget of $15 million, the domestic debut kick-started what could be a prof- itable run for “Ramona,” continuing through to ancillary.

Meanwhile, Focus Features’ “The Kids Are All Right” earned a lively $2.6 million after expanding to 201 locations, averaging $13,173 per screen. “Kids” held steady in some multiplexes where more commercial titles typically dominate, which lifted domestic totals close to an estimated $5 million. Focus plans to mount an aggressive expansion of the pic next weekend.

Expanding overseas, “Inception” added 29 markets to its roster, including Australia, France and Japan, totaling a stellar $56.7 million from 38 territories. Pic’s foreign box office receipts now stand at an estimated $84 million.

“Inception” saw a considerable gain Stateside on Saturday, up 26% compared with Friday’s $13.2 million take, which Warner prexy of domestic distribution Dan Fellman attributed in part to increased interest among older moviegoers. Last weekend, the film debuted with 73% of auds aged 35 and under.

Imax theaters also saw a minimal drop this weekend with “Inception,” with large-screen showings contributing $4.9 million on 197 Imax runs, down just 32% from a $7 million opening take.

“To have a hold of this stature is definitely a rarity among big summer blockbuster movies,” Fellman said. “This is a smart, original film that has taken on a life of its own.”

Summer tentpoles typically drop 50%-55% after opening weekend, so the lower 31% drop for “Inception,” helmed by Christopher Nolan and toplining Leonardo DiCaprio, is a significant success for the studio. Box office observers had been cautious about the film’s prospects, with some predicting its dense storytelling would alienate broader demos in the U.S. and worldwide.

While Warners took on the challenge of entering a crowded international frame, Sony decided to wait with “Salt,” debuting the pic day-and-date in only 17 smaller overseas territories, many in Asia. In India, “Salt” tallied an impressive $1.6 million on 464 screens, the year’s second-highest debut for a Hollywood pic in that territory. “Salt” bowed with an estimated $5.1 million overall internationally.

Sony prexy of worldwide distribution Rory Bruer said Jolie’s star power should translate beyond U.S. auds, adding, “We have the most incredible movie star in the type of movie that people love seeing her in.”

Originally conceived as a vehicle for Tom Cruise, “Salt” was re-envisioned for Jolie after Cruise left the project. According to “Salt” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who also credited Jolie as the driving force behind the film, only two weeks passed between Cruise dropping out and Jolie committing to the part.

“I’m really tired of hearing that movie stars can’t deliver any more,” di Bonaventura said. “There’s no question that we wouldn’t be where we are without her commitment.”

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “Salt” follows Jolie as a CIA officer accused of being a Russian spy. Pic scored a B+ CinemaScore rating and played slightly better with older female auds. Budgeted at approximately $100 million, “Salt” expands next weekend to Japan and Russia, where auds should spark to the Russian-themed action thriller.

As expected, Fox’s “Ramona and Beezus,” which stars Joey King and Selena Gomez as the respective titular girls, played best with families, femmes and moviegoers aged 25 and under. Based on the classic children’s books by Beverly Cleary, the pic scored an overall A- CinemaScore rating.

Despite strong family holdovers, including 3D toons “Despicable Me” and “Toy Story 3,” Fox senior VP of domestic distribution Chris Aronson said “Ramona” mounted a healthy counterprogramming bid. “It’s a good piece of business and the perfect film for families,” he added.

Both Universal’s “Despicable” and Disney’s “Toy 3″ showed staying power over several weeks. “Despicable” was down only 26% in its third outing, grossing an estimated $24.1 million for a total of $161.7 million, while “Toy 3″ slipped a mere 25% for a weekend take of $9 million in its sixth frame. With a boffo $379.5 million to date, “Toy 3″ stands as the top-grossing 2010 release. Fox’s 2009 title “Avatar” has totaled $466.1 million since Jan. 1.

In limited release, IFC launched “Life During Wartime” at one New York location, with an impressive per-screen average of $30,750. “Life” will expand to Los Angeles next weekend and 20 additional U.S. markets through Aug. 13.

Neo Classics’ French thriller “Farewell,” toplining Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica, grossed an estimated $45,000 at seven locations, averaging a solid $6,400 per screen. Pic has already grossed a healthy $9 million in Gaul.

While “Inception” and “Salt” performed solidly overseas, Disney’s “Toy 3″ posted a stellar $62 million in 43 territories, bringing its overseas cume to an estimated $351 million.

“Toy 3″ scored $30.6 million to become the U.K.’s highest toon opening. Toon’s Blighty debut also ranks as the market’s second-highest opening ever behind “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which debuted with $36.9 million in 2004.

“Inception” dropped only 30% in the U.K., raking in $6.3 million in its soph sesh for a local cume of $21.4 million. In Japan, the film was tops with $8.9 million on 523 screens, while thesp Marion Cotillard likely boosted appeal in France, where the pic debuted with $8.1 million on 717 screens. Warner plans to expand the film to German-speaking Europe next weekend.

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