Studio estimates Sunday show that the love story starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum took in $41.7 million to come in ahead of two new action tales and the first 3-D "Star Wars" reissue.
Landing a close second with $39.3 million was Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds' action thriller "Safe House." Coming in solidly at No. 3 was Dwayne Johnson's family action sequel "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" with $27.6 million.
And adding to George Lucas' riches was the 3-D premiere of "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," which was No. 4 with $23 million. That raises the lifetime domestic total for "Phantom Menace to $454.1 million.
This was the first non-holiday weekend that four movies opened with more than $20 million each, said Paul Dergarabedian, analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com. The only other time when four new releases did that well was over Christmas weekend in 2008, he said.
"It felt like a summer weekend to me," Dergarabedian said. "This was like a great big valentine from Hollywood to the audience, or from the audience to Hollywood."
The four big debuts maintained Hollywood's strong business during the normally sleepy winter. Overall domestic revenues totaled $193 million, up 19.3 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Just Go with It" led with $30.5 million.
So far this year, domestic receipts are at $1.2 billion, 19 percent ahead of 2011's.
"I really believe people are in a movie-going mode," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, which released "Safe House." ''There have been great choices so far this year. I feel honestly that the mild weather has helped them enjoy wintertime for what it is. They're not stuck inside, they're not snowed in. Maybe people like to get out of the home rather than cocooning."
Timed to Valentine's Day on Tuesday, "The Vow" stars McAdams as a woman who awakens in the hospital after a car wreck with no memory of her husband (Tatum) and the last five years of her life.
Women accounted for 72 percent of the audience for "The Vow," whose receipts in just its first two days exceeded the movie's $30 million production budget.
"There are certain movies that women, no pun intended, vow they are going to see, and this is that kind of movie," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony, whose Screen Gems banner released "The Vow." ''I do think a lot of men are going to be seeing it on Feb. 14. It's a great date movie, and I think the men who do see it on Valentine's Day are going to be thoroughly entertained."
"The Vow" added $9.7 million in 20 overseas markets to bring its worldwide total to $51.4 million.
The audience was split evenly between males and females for "Safe House," which stars Washington as a CIA traitor who turns himself in and winds up on the run with his rookie minder (Reynolds).
"Safe House" also took in $10.2 million from 25 overseas territories to lift its worldwide total to $49.5 million.
"Journey 2" stars Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson and Vanessa Hudgens in a follow-up to the 2008 hit "Journey to the Center of the Earth," a modern take on Jules Verne's sci-fi classic. The sequel gives a similar twist to Verne's "The Mysterious Island."
The movie started modestly Friday, behind "The Phantom Menace." But family crowds swamped theaters for "Journey 2" on Saturday.
"For us to win that family battle this weekend was a tremendous coup for the film," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., which released "Journey 2."
The PG-rated "Journey 2" filled out that family niche on a weekend that gave viewers wide choices.
"I've always felt the market is healthiest when there's something for everyone, and there is something for everyone now. 'The Vow' has a specific audience, 'Safe House' has a specific audience, 'Journey 2' found its audience. And 'Star Wars' is 'Star Wars,'" said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox, which released Lucas' sci-fi franchise. "It's one of those really rare jewels in the film universe."
While business was strong for "The Phantom Menace," it came up short of the $30.2 million debut for last September's 3-D re-release of "The Lion King."
"The Phantom Menace" reissue added $20.5 million in 61 overseas markets, bringing the 3-D version's worldwide haul to $43.5 million. Added to the $924 million global total from its original 1999 release, the movie is climbing toward the $1 billion mark.
Release dates for 3-D versions of the remaining five "Star Wars" flicks have not been announced, though the initial plan for Fox and Lucas was to put out one a year.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Vow," $41.7 million ($9.7 million international).
2. "Safe House," $39.3 million ($10.2 million international).
3. "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," $27.6 million.
4. "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" in 3-D, $23 million ($20.5 million international).
5. "Chronicle," $12.3 million.
6. "The Woman in Black," $10.3 million.
7. "The Grey," $5.1 million.
8. "Big Miracle," $3.9 million.
9. "The Descendants," $3.5 million.
10. "Underworld Awakening," $2.5 million.
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.