The fall B.O. season got off to a typically sluggish start, as Warner Bros.’ epidemic ensembler “Contagion” topped the domestic B.O. with an estimated debut of $23.1 million and Disney-DreamWorks’ “The Help” dropped to second place with $8.7 million for a cume of $137.1 million after five weeks. Overseas auds paid for more of the same, as Sony’s “The Smurfs” held onto No. 1 for its fifth straight week.

“The Smurfs” turned in $14.9 million over the weekend, bringing the international cume to $321.2 million.

But holdovers like “Friends With Benefits” also did well, expanding to major markets. “Benefits,” also from Sony, saw a solid weekend take of $10.2 million, driven by bows in the U.K., France and Germany; cume reached $29.2 million in four weeks.

Meanwhile, “Contagion” opened day and date in six markets including Italy with a weekend gross of $2.1 million.

The Warner pic, which earned $2.3 million from 254 Imax screens (or 10% of its Stateside bow), had plenty of steam going into the weekend, as most B.O. pundits expected the pic to win with around $20 million-$25 million.

“Contagion,” toplining Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard, beat two other wide releases: Lionsgate’s “Warrior,” which bowed below expectations with $5.6 million, and Sony’s R-rated laffer “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star,” which earned a dismal $1.5 million.

Domestic box office was down vs. last year by 3%-4%.

Monster movie “Creature” also bellyflopped. The film, self-distributed by Sid and Jon Sheinberg’s Bubble Releasing, had an unusually aggressive rollout for an indie title but a paltry per-screen average of just $220 from 1,507 locations. Total was an estimated $331,000.

In limited release, Sony Pictures Classics broadened Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” to 56 locations, up from 17 last weekend, averaging $2,287 per screen.

With a so-so cume of $317,929 after three weeks, “Higher Ground” seems not to have recovered from Hurricane Irene. Rebounding more successfully was fellow Sundance pic “Our Idiot Brother,” which has cumed $21 million. Sony Classics’ “The Guard,” which played at 47 locations in its third frame, earned more than twice what “Higher Ground” did.

Adult support

The frame’s top two titles, both co-financed by Participant Media, hooked mostly over-25 auds, a boon demo for late August and post-Labor Day box office.

By contrast, “Bucky Larson” was expected to skew toward males under 25 (Sony didn’t conduct exit polls), though “Warrior” saw a relatively even split between auds over and under 25. In fact, the latter film grossed 51% of its opening from adult moviegoers — a statistic that Lionsgate distribution topper David Spitz attributes to positive reactions from advanced screenings and good reviews.

“It’s good to be throwing the first punch in the marketplace,” Spitz said, referring to the usual packed fall lineup of adult-skewing pics. “The strategy all along was to establish ourselves as one of the first important fall dramas.”

With “Contagion,” Warner exec VP-general sales manager Jeff Goldstein said he slightly underestimated the film’s weekend estimate, since some adult auds may have stayed home for the 9/11 anni. (Goldstein said the film could go up by roughly $200,000 with Monday’s actuals.)

“The Help,” down 40%, saw its biggest weekend-to-weekend drop in five weeks — but that’s not bad, considering how the pic has played so far. “I would have expected a 40% drop in the beginning,” said Dave Hollis, exec VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution at Disney. “It’s definitely become water-cooler talk.”

Now, that chatter has translated overseas. Last weekend, Disney bowed “The Help” in Australia with $1.7 million, including previews. Then the pic dropped just 18% for a soph sesh take of $1.4 million and a local cume of $3.7 million.

Mixed prospects

Neither “Warrior” nor “Bucky Larson” were major financial investments: “Warrior” cost a reported mid-$20 millions, while “Bucky Larson” was produced for less than $10 million with minimal P&A.

“Warrior,” with a sterling A CinemaScore, could gain steam over the coming weeks, similar to “The Fighter” — at least that’s the hope for Lionsgate toppers Jon Feltheimer and Joe Drake, who OK’d the project. (“The Fighter,” which cumed $93 million, scored an A- rating but benefited from a holiday and awards play period.)

Meanwhile, Sony signed on for the Adam Sandler-produced “Bucky Larson” in part because of the studio’s relationship with Sandler (it did score a positive B rating).

“Contagion,” budgeted at $55 million-$60 million, drew a B- CinemaScore. That’s slightly off the B+ ratings given to last year’s “The Town” and “The Social Network,” which bowed similarly with $23.8 million and $22.4 million, respectively and went on to display sturdy legs. “The Town” cumed more than $92 million; “Social Network,” almost $96 million.

“Strong adult movies in the fall, given the right slot, can really go on to be very successful,” Goldstein said.

B.O. figures for Sept. 9 to Sept. 11.

Title/Distributor/Ticket Sales/Screens

1) Contagion (Warner Bros.) — $23.1 million; 3,222

2) The Help (Disney) — $8.7 million; 2,935

3) Warrior (Lionsgate) — $5.6 million; 1,869

4) The Debt (Focus Features) — $4.9 million; 1,876

5) Colombiana (Sony) — $4.0 million; 2,354

6) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox) — $3.9 million; 2,887

7) Shark Night 3D (Relativity) — $3.5 million; 2,848

8) Apollo 18 (Weinstein Co.) — $2.9 million; 3,330

9) Our Idiot Brother (Weinstein Co.) — $2.8 million; 2,396

10) Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (Weinstein Co.) — $2.5 million; 2,544