The Valentine's Day weekend was a close one as Sandler and Aniston's romantic comedy, "Just Go With It," debuted with $31 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
That was just ahead of the concert documentary "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," which opened a close second with $30.3 million. Sony's "Just Go With It" and Paramount's "Never Say Never" were close enough that the rankings could change when studios release final numbers Monday.
The teen pop idol's flick exceeded industry expectations and nearly matched the $31.1 million opening of 2008's "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert," the record-holder for music-documentary debuts.
Another love story, Disney's animated adventure "Gnomeo & Juliet," opened solidly at No. 3 with $25.5 million. The movie features the voices of Emily Blunt and James McAvoy in a twist on "Romeo and Juliet" told with garden gnomes.
The weekend's other new wide release, Focus Features' ancient Roman saga "The Eagle," was No. 4 with $8.6 million. The film stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell on a quest into the wilds of 2nd century Scotland.
Though Hollywood generally did strong business, revenues still were down compared to the previous year's for the 14th weekend in a row.
Receipts came in at $149 million, off 27 percent from the same weekend a year ago, when "Valentine's Day," "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" and "The Wolfman" combined for debuts totaling nearly $120 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
"We can't catch a break at the box office this year," said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "Ordinarily, this would be a great weekend, but last year, the first quarter was really strong."
"Just Go With It" is a romantic farce featuring Sandler and Aniston as pals posing as a soon-to-be-divorced couple.
The movie maintained Sandler's steady record of box-office hits, pulling in the over-25 crowd, while teen girls flocked to Bieber's film, which gave "Just Go for It" a run for the No. 1 spot.
"It was a bit of a nail-biter," said Rory Bruer, Sony's head of distribution. "But quite frankly, what you could see is that both movies were going to do business. Overall, it was a pretty good movie-going weekend."
While critics hated "Just Go With It," Bieber's "Never Say Never" earned fairly good reviews. But audiences for music documentaries and concert films are tough to track, and even some insiders at Paramount thought the movie might do as little as $10 million over opening weekend, just a third of what it actually delivered.
Adding in ticket sales from preview screenings Wednesday, the movie's domestic total stood at $31 million.
"I've clearly caught the Bieber fever, and I don't think they were looking for me. I don't think I was anywhere near their target audience," said Don Harris, Paramount's executive vice president for distribution. "I caught it when the grosses started coming in."
In limited release, Fox Searchlight's comedy "Cedar Rapids" debuted well with $310,789 in 15 theaters, for a healthy average of $20,719 a cinema.
That compared to an average of $9,746 in 3,105 theaters for "Never Say Never," $8,737 in 3,548 cinemas for "Just Go With It," $8,517 in 2,994 locations for "Gnomeo & Juliet" and $3,741 in 2,296 spots for "The Eagle."
"Cedar Rapids" stars Ed Helms as a naJive insurance salesman who gets some life lessons at a business conference. The movie gradually expands into nationwide release over the next month.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Just Go With It," $31 million.
2. "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," $30.3 million.
3. "Gnomeo & Juliet," $25.5 million.
4. "The Eagle," $8.6 million.
5. "The Roommate," $8.4 million.
6. "The King's Speech," $7.4 million.
7. "No Strings Attached," $5.6 million.
8. "Sanctum," $5.1 million.
9. "True Grit," $3.8 million.
10. "The Green Hornet," $3.6 million.
Universal Pictures and Focus Features are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony Pictures, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount and Paramount Vantage are divisions of Viacom Inc.; Disney's parent is The Walt Disney Co.; 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Fox Atomic are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a consortium of Providence Equity Partners, Texas Pacific Group, Sony Corp., Comcast Corp., DLJ Merchant Banking Partners and Quadrangle Group; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC Films is owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corp.; Rogue Pictures is owned by Relativity Media LLC; Overture Films is a subsidiary of Liberty Media Corp.