Stone's "W." actually ran fourth, opening with $10.6 million to finish behind the family comedy "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" (No. 2 with $11.2 million) and the chick flick "The Secret Life of Bees" (No. 3 with $11.1 million).
"For me, an Oliver Stone film about George Bush doesn't necessarily scream big box office," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "A film like this is very tough to gauge, but this is exactly what I thought it would do."
Lionsgate's "W.," starring Josh Brolin as Bush, came in well behind the $18.7 million debut of Stone's last movie, 2006's Sept. 11 saga "World Trade Center." That movie opened in nearly 3,000 theaters, about 900 more than "W.," however.
Playing in 2,030 cinemas, "W." averaged a solid but unremarkable $5,197 a theater, compared with a $6,334 average for "World Trade Center." "W." was shot on a modest budget of $25 million.
The film had been on political junkies' radar since Stone put "W." on the fast track less than a year ago so he could have it out before the November election. Stone started shooting in May, his five-month turnaround time remarkably short by Hollywood standards, where major movies can take a year or more.
If he needed more time, Stone contractually had the option of releasing the film around the time Bush leaves office in January.
But with two weeks until the election, this is prime time for a Bush biography, said Steve Rothenberg, Lionsgate head of distribution.
"We felt it was very important to release the film after the presidential debates but before the election," Rothenberg said. "We felt interest in the election would be at its height, and interest in George W. Bush would be much greater now than after January. We feel we have a good corridor over the next two weeks."
The movie received mixed reviews, with critics surprised at how relatively tame it turned out coming from liberal firebrand Stone, who made the paranoia-laden presidential tales "JFK" and "Nixon."
Brolin's Bush has some buffoonish moments, but Stone showed empathy for the president, casting him as a man with serious daddy issues but an unshakable relationship with wife Laura to fall back on.
Among the weekend's other new movies, 20th Century Fox's "Max Payne" averaged $5,332 in 3,376 theaters and Fox Searchlight's "The Secret Life of Bees" did $6,945 in 1,591 cinemas.
Disney's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," which had been the No. 1 movie the previous two weekends, raised its total to $69.1 million.
Adapted from the video game, "Max Payne" stars Wahlberg as a New York City cop hunting the killers of his wife and child.
"The Secret Life of Bees" stars Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo in a drama about a troubled teen learning life lessons through the beekeeping operations of three Southern sisters.
"Max Payne" had a predominantly male audience, "The Secret Life of Bees" played to women, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" continued to grab family crowds and "W." was the choice for politically minded adults.
"You've got all kinds of pictures out there," said 20th Century Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston. "When this business is great is when there are a lot of different pictures out that people want to go see."
Hollywood's overall revenues rose for the fourth-straight weekend. The top-12 movies took in $86.4 million, up 10 percent from the same weekend last year.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Max Payne," $18 million 2. "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," $11.2 million 3. "The Secret Life of Bees," $11.1 million 4. "W.," $10.6 million 5. "Eagle Eye," $7.3 million 6. "Body of Lies," $6.9 million 7. "Quarantine," $6.3 million 8. "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," $3.9 million 9. "Sex Drive," $3.6 million 10. "Nights in Rodanthe," $2.7 million.