New releases both beat studio predictions

(This article was updated at 5 p.m. PT.)

The race for the weekend’s top spot at the domestic B.O. was a photo finish, with estimates for both new entries, “The Last Exorcism” and “Takers,” exceeding studio expectations.

According to weekend estimates, Lionsgate’s “Exorcism” grossed an estimated $21.3 million at 2,874 locations, enough to narrowly beat “Takers,” which earned $21 million at 2,206, according to Sony estimates.

Both pics overperformed with Stateside auds, as pre-weekend tracking suggested “Takers” and “Exorcism” could debut closer to the mid-teens.

The weekend’s new entries also round out an impressive slate for Sony and Lionsgate, with pics from both companies filling out the top five. Lionsgate’s “The Expendables” fell to the No. 3 spot in its third frame, posting an estimated $9.5 million for a cume of $82 million. “Eat Pray Love” and “The Other Guys,” both from Sony, followed with weekend estimates of $7 million and $6.6 million, respectively. “Eat Pray Love” has cumed $60.7 million; “Guys,” $99.3 million.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox’s re-release of “Avatar,” with 8½ minutes of deleted scenes, launched at 812 locations, with a less-than-stellar $4 million, of which $1.6 million came from 125 Imax runs. Domestic total stands at a massive $753.8 million.

Fox’s retooled “Avatar” also launched in 14 international markets, with an estimated $4.3 million on 1,046 screens. Pic’s added take was enough to lift foreign totals past the $2 billion benchmark, making “Avatar” the only film to hit that milestone.

Another film to reach record-breaking heights was Disney’s 3D toon “Toy Story 3.” It surpassed $1 billion in worldwide B.O. receipts as the Mouse House became the only studio to have two pics hit that milestone in one calendar year (the first pic was “Alice in Wonderland”).

While “Toy Story 3″ added an estimated $12.7 million to its international cume of $606.4 million, Paramount’s 3D fanboy pic “The Last Airbender” managed to top the overseas market, with a sizable $18 million estimated from 51 territories. “Airbender” has totaled $120 million internationally.

“Exorcism,” which was held from most foreign wickets, knocked “Expendables” from its two-week B.O. reign. The pic’s narrow victory marks the third straight winning week for Lionsgate — a company first.

Lionsgate acquired “Exorcism” for an estimated $1 million. Pic was produced by Eli Roth, Strike Entertainment and StudioCanal, with the latter as full financier. The StudioCanal partnership marks a rare case in which a film fully financed out of Europe tops the U.S. charts. The French-based company also handled overseas distribution in several markets.

Producer Marc Abraham, who co-produced with Eric Newman and Tom Bliss through their Strike label, credited the partnership as one of the driving forces behind the film’s success.

Directed by Daniel Stamm, “Exorcism” tells the story of a minister who allows a group of filmmakers to film the last exorcism he performs.

Pic skewed slightly female, with distaffers repping 52% of the audience; 65% of the opening weekend aud was 25 and under. Latino auds also boosted the film’s debut, with a strong 54%.

Though “Exorcism” received a D CinemaScore rating and may face an uphill battle in repeat frames, Lionsgate said the film has already exceeded expectations. “We were confident that we were going to get in the mid-teens,” said Lionsgate distrib topper David Spitz. “But the fact that we’re going to have a two in front of our weekend — this is a huge win for the company.”

“Exorcism” fell short of Sony’s 2005 debut of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” with $30.1 million, but surpassed last year’s “The Unborn,” which Universal launched to $19.8 million. New Line will launch its exorcism tale “The Rite,” based on real events, Jan. 28.

Sony’s “Takers,” from Screen Gems, marks another solid start for the distrib, which has reaped boffo returns from most of its summer fare, led by “Karate Kid” ($175.5 million) and “Grown Ups” ($159.1 million).

“We’re kind of pinching ourselves to have our sixth hit in a row,” said Sony prexy of worldwide distribution Rory Bruer. “There was a tremendous amount of work that went into these films this summer.”

Budgeted at $32 million, “Takers” toplines Matt Dillon, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen and Tip “T.I.” Harris, who also served as producer through his shingle Grand Hustle Films. Pic centers around a zealous police officer (Dillon) determined to thwart a criminal team’s latest bank heist.

Bruer said the pic’s solid per-screen average of $9,519, coupled with an overall B rating, should mean good news for the film in subsequent weeks. A broad mix of audience among various demos, including African-American auds, also may bode well, he said. Pic saw a relatively even split between older and younger moviegoers, with women making up 52% of its aud.

Fox relaunched “Avatar” with hopes of appealing mostly to repeat viewers. The film screened exclusively at 3D locations, with limited midnight screenings Thursday.

Among the frame’s top holdovers, Sony’s “The Other Guys” and Warner Bros.’ “Inception” held best, both dropping just 35%. “Inception” grossed an estimated $5.1 million in its seventh frame, bringing the film’s domestic total to an outstanding $270.7 million. Meanwhile, Fox’s bloodsucker parody “Vampires Suck” topped the weekend’s soph sesh offerings, landing in the No. 6 spot with $5.3 million. Pic’s Stateside cume stands at $29.9 million.

Sony Pictures Classics mounted an aggressive rollout of Robert Duvall starrer “Get Low,” expanding the film to 570 screens for a weekend estimate of $1.7 million. Pic, which scored a solid per-screen average of $3,066, has cumed $3.7 million since its debut on July 30.

Also looking to gain steam on the specialty front, IFC and Music Box launched two French-lingo pics, “Change of Plans” and “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” respectively.

“Change of Plans,” about a summer dinner party where its guests reveal their secrets, launched at two New York locations, averaging $8,400 per screen.

Music Box’s bow of gangster pic “Mesrine,” totaling an estimated $150,000 at 28 locations, posted top figures in New York, San Francisco and L.A. “Mesrine” — the first part in a two-part series — posted a per-screen average of $5,357. Music Box plans to debut the second installment, starring Vincent Cassel, next week.

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