B.O. jumps 27% over last weekend, still lags behind same frame last year

A virtuoso performance by Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” which set the per-screen average record with $145,949 from five locations, was the weekend’s biggest box office success story. Meanwhile, wide opener “Resident Evil: Retribution” from Sony-Screen Gems topped the the charts with $21.1 million, helping B.O. scare up a 27% gain over last weekend’s low point.

Yet three-day totals fell 18% behind last year, the second weekend in a row with a drop, even in view of September’s typically sluggish results.

Disney-Pixar’s 3D re-release “Finding Nemo” landed at second place, but struggled to make major waves, collecting an estimated $17.5 million domestically.

Toon reissue fell short of the $30.2 million opening earned this time last year by the Mouse’s “The Lion King” in 3D, though Disney spent just less than $5 million to convert “Nemo” to 3D — half the cost of “Lion King” 3D.

But there were signs of a bountiful harvest in coming weeks, as none of the frame’s top 10-grossing films fell more than 40% — an impressive feat considering some pics (“The Bourne Legacy” and “The Campaign”) have been in theaters for as many as six weeks.

“The Master” surpassed the previous per-screen record set earlier this year by Focus Features’ “Moonrise Kingdom,” with $130,749 at four locations. The Weinstein Co. pic, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, bowed at four 70mm-capable theaters in New York and L.A. — the fifth is a 35mm screen at the Angelika in N.Y.

The retro-format presentation boosted appeal among cinephiles, helping sell out showtimes Friday and Saturday (especially at the Arc-light’s Cinerama Dome).

“The clear leader of the five was the Arclight Hollywood,” said Weinstein distribution topper Erik Lomis. That theater is projected to have contributed more than $300,000 for “The Master” this weekend, putting it in the top five biggest Friday-to-Sunday grosses ever at the Arclight.

“The film played a little younger there than I think we expected it might,” Lomis added.

Also boosting the weekend’s specialty biz, Roadside Attractions’ Richard Gere thriller “Arbitrage” scored the biggest three-day opening for a theatrical/VOD simultaneous release, with $2.1 million from 197 playdates, as well as the weekend’s No. 2 spot on iTunes movies.

Sony’s “Resident Evil” franchise continued to display considerable worldwide stamina as its fifth installment grossed approximately $50 million from 65 international territories. “Retribution,” budgeted at $65 million, outdid its 2010 predecessor by 28% from roughly the same debut markets overseas.

“It’s always a world play with ‘Resident Evil, ‘ ” said Sony worldwide distrib exec Rory Bruer. “Not only did we do well domestically, but we really hit it out of the park in Southeast Asia and Latin America.”

Losing some of its Stateside steam (from a wider footprint even), Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” re-release estimated $400,000 from 322 locations, up 55 from last weekend, when it grossed $1.7 million during a one-week exclusive Imax run. (The large-screen exhib was committed to screening “Resident Evil” this weekend.)

The “Raiders” reissue has cumed $2.8 million, lifting the pic’s lifetime domestic cume to nearly $248 million.

Shallow ‘Nemo’ nostalgia?

Given the weekend’s strong holdover perfs, it’s unlikely that “Nemo” underperformed wholly because of a recent moviegoing malaise. The toon conversion, which skewed overwhelmingly toward families (71%), may not have had as faithful a fanbase as “Lion King,” and is fresher in auds’ minds.

Still, “Nemo” nearly matched the $17.8 million-opening of 3D “Beauty and the Beast” in January.

“It’s a great way for studios and exhibition to find a nice bit of change during what usually is a slow time at the box office,” said Disney distribution topper Dave Hollis, who added that “Nemo” had a strong 40% Friday-to-Saturday uptick, better than “The Lion King” (34%) and “Beauty and the Beast” (20%).

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