Weekend domestic B.O. came down to the wire among the top three titles, as Disney’s remarkable 3D re-release of “The Lion King” won its second straight week with $22.1 million, while “The Smurfs” reigned again at the international B.O. with $12.9 million, pushing the pic’s worldwide cume past the $500 million mark.

The three $20 million-plus titles in the U.S. put the weekend 18% ahead of the same weekend last year.

Sony estimated a weekend debut of $20.6 million for Brad Pitt starrer “Moneyball,” putting it only slightly ahead of Warner Bros.’ “Dolphin Tale” with $20.3 million.

Appealing to adult auds, “Moneyball” started the weekend with a slight edge on Friday, putting the three top players in a tight race.

Once it entered prime family film

playing time, “The Lion King” saw a weekend surge, with a minimal soph-sesh drop of 27%, while “Dolphin Tale” played admirably, considering the former pic’s top-notch staying power. “Dolphin Tale” had the weekend’s best Friday-Saturday bump, up 70%.

Among the weekend’s remaining wide releases, Lionsgate saw an OK $11.2 million gross for Taylor Lautner actioner “Abduction,” boosted primarily by under-18 femmes. Meanwhile, Open Road Films’ inaugural release, “Killer Elite,” came in softer than expected, with an estimated $9.5 million. That’s not a terrible kickoff for the newbie distrib, though most bizzers, including those at Open Road, expected the film to hit double digits.

In limited release, Sundance Selects’ gay-themed festival darling “Weekend” sold out screenings in New York, where the pic grossed an estimated $25,200 at one location for the weekend’s best per screen. Also, Relativity Media’s “Machine Gun Preacher” scored $11,000 at four playdates before expanding to 15 markets next weekend, while Millennium Films’ “Puncture,” starring Chris Evans, did less per-screen (almost $9,000) from the same number of locations.

Rory Bruer, prexy of worldwide distribution at Sony, said “Moneyball” played mostly to over-25 auds (64%), but added that the film likely will broaden to younger moviegoers in the coming weeks.

“A film like ‘Moneyball’ during opening weekend attracts mostly an older audience,” Bruer said. “So there’s not that call to action like there is with films that attract younger audiences.”

“Dolphin Tale,” which scored a rare A+ CinemaScore rating, was hurt some by having to compete with “The Lion King” in the family market.

“I don’t know if we would have gotten half of what ‘Lion King’ did had it not been in the market, but we would have at least gotten a third, which would have pushed us over the top,” said Warner distrib prexy of domestic distribution Dan Fellman, adding that “Dolphin Tale” could wind up higher than “Moneyball” when final figures come in today.

“It’s a virtual tie for us,” Fellman said.

3D family upswing?

“The Lion King” debuted last weekend with a splendid (and surprising) 91% 3D share, which rose in its second outing to 93%, according to Disney.

Though the Mouse encouraged exhibs to screen the toon mostly in 3D — with no more than two 2D screenings per day, in fact — the film’s overwhelming 3D share is still remarkable considering how the format has played with families of late. “The Lion King” also appealled to a sizeable adult crowd and was marketed as a 3D event, however.

The success of “The Lion King” in 3D helped raise the bar for “Dolphin Tale,” whose 50% 3D share landed at the high end of 3D openings for similar family pics. “Dolphin Tale,” which was fully financed by Alcon Entertainment for a total $37 million after tax rebates, had 77% of its total locations in 3D. “We’re hoping that the film crosses over into mainstream moviegoing,” said Alcon co-founder and co-CEO Broderick Johnson.

By comparison, Disney estimates that approximately 80% of “The Lion King’s” showtimes were in 3D.

But the format did work better for “The Lion King” (and subsequently “Dolphin Tale”) than even the most optimistic B.O. pundits predicted it would. “The Lion King’s” $78 million worldwide cume certainly has made the effort of 3D conversion worthwhile, as well likely spurring more 3D retrofits.

“Any weekend when you have a 26% drop, you’ll be walking away happy,” said Disney exec VP of motion picture distribution Dave Hollis. “But for it to happen this weekend, with a re-issue competing against another family film, is astounding.”

While “The Lion King” attracted plenty of families this weekend, the toon reboot continued to play well with over-25 auds; look to the pic’s stellar mid-week perfs.

This time of year is especially robust for adult moviegoers — a fact Sony hoped to capitalize on, using the same release strategy for “Moneyball” as it did with “The Social Network.” That pic opened to $22 million and cumed almost $97 million domestically, with a B+ CinemaScore vs. “Moneyball’s” overall A rating.

Positive reviews and word-of-mouth will help “Moneyball” leg out domestically. But the film could face a tougher road overseas as sports pics, particularly baseball, generally don’t travel well — except in Japan and South Korea, where baseball is popular.

Sony’s Bruer said Pitt, along with the film’s more universal story elements, should help win over international filmgoers.

“It’s a movie about the underdog — and that resonates everywhere,” Bruer said.

“Moneyball” played relatively even between the genders, with Pitt’s femme appeal balancing out the male sports aud.

About 65% of the “Abduction” aud was both female and under 25. Those auds gave “Abduction” a B- Cinemascore rating, while Rotten Tomatoes top critics gave the Lautner pic a unaminous zero. “Killer Elite,” which skewed overwhelmingly (75%) toward over-25 auds, scored a B CinemaScore rating.

Overseas V.I.P.’s

Sony’s comedy holdover “Friends With Benefits” had another nice weekend internationally, with $9.7 million for an overseas cume of $55.6 million. “Friends” came in second to “Smurfs,” while Universal’s “Johnny English Reborn” ranked No. 3 with $7.4 million in its third frame, cuming $23.6 million.

“Abduction” debuted day-and-date in Australia and some Latin American territories for a reported $2.9 million, according to Rentrak.

In Oz, the Lautner thriller grossed a fine $1.3 million, and will benefit from local school holidays boosting midweeks. Meanwhile, the film ranked first in Brazil, ahead of a pair of 3D pics “Final Destination 5” and “Conan the Barbarian.”