The Disney animated version of the Charles Dickens classic knocked the King of Pop out of the No. 1 spot as "Michael Jackson's This Is It" slipped to second place with $14 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
Sony's "This Is It," presenting rehearsal performances Jackson shot before his death last June, raised its domestic total to $57.9 million. Worldwide, "This Is It" has taken in $186.5 million. Featuring Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge and also as the three holiday ghosts that show Scrooge the error of his miserly ways, "A Christmas Carol" came in on the low end of Disney's expectations for opening weekend.
On the other end of the spectrum, Lionsgate's acclaimed drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" had a spectacular start, pulling in $1.8 million in just 18 theaters, averaging $100,000 a cinema. That compares with an $8,418 average for "A Christmas Carol" in 3,683 theaters.
"Precious" had a record average for films opening in 10 or more theaters. Others that have averaged $100,000 or more typically debut in only a few cinemas.
The weekend brought a rush of other new movies, led by George Clooney's comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which finished at No. 3 with $13.3 million. The Overture Films release is a satiric look at U.S. military efforts to create "warrior monks" who can predict the future or walk through walls.
Debuting in fourth place with $12.5 million was Universal's "The Fourth Kind," starring Milla Jovovich as a psychologist studying alien abductions in Alaska.
Cameron Diaz and James Marsden's sci-fi tale "The Box" opened at No. 6 with $7.9 million. The Warner Bros. thriller centers on a couple given a mysterious box that can provide them $1 million, but at the cost of a stranger's life.
With nearly two months of playing time through the holidays, Disney is counting on steady business for "A Christmas Carol," particularly over Thanksgiving weekend and in the buildup to Christmas itself.
"You have to play these things for the long term," said Chuck Viane, Disney's head of distribution. "You've got to have the patience and you've got to pick the right weekend. For us, the days when the malls turned to Christmas stores is when we wanted to go."
Director Robert Zemeckis shot the movie using the same performance-capture technology used on his 2004 holiday offering "The Polar Express." Carrey and his co-stars acted on a bare soundstage as digital cameras caught their performances, with computer animators later adding costumes, sets, props and other effects.
"A Christmas Carol" came in ahead of "Polar Express," which had an opening weekend of $23.5 million. But it fell well short of the $55.1 million opening for Carrey's previous holiday tale, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in 2000.
Holiday-themed films tend to hold up well through the season, among them Disney's "The Santa Clause" comedies. After its modest start, "The Polar Express" went on to become a $160 million hit by the end of its run and has become a holiday perennial in rereleases in huge-screen IMAX theaters.
"A Christmas Carol" did three-fourths of its business in theaters showing 3-D versions. Huge-screen IMAX theaters, which represented only 5 percent of the theater count, accounted for $4.5 million, or 14.5 percent, of the movie's total gross, said Greg Foster, IMAX chairman and president.
"Precious," which won the top awards at last January's Sundance Film Festival, stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as a Harlem teen who gradually rises above an upbringing of incest, abuse and illiteracy.
After Sundance, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on as executive producers, helping to spread the word on "Precious," which has earned acclaim from critics and audiences at other film festivals. The film has Academy Awards buzz as a best-picture contender, along with Oscar prospects for Sidibe, co-star Mo'Nique and director Lee Daniels.
The movie started in only four cities - New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago. Lionsgate plans to expand it this Friday to five more - Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Dallas and Houston, then take it into wide release Nov. 20.
"A lot of movie-goers are not happy with the release plan right now, because it's not in their cities yet," said David Spitz, head of distribution for Lionsgate. "That's always a good sign."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "A Christmas Carol," $31 million.
2. "Michael Jackson's This Is It," $14 million.
3. "The Men Who Stare at Goats," $13.3 million.
4. "The Fourth Kind," $12.5 million.
5. "Paranormal Activity," $8.6 million.
6. "The Box," $7.9 million.
7. "Couples Retreat," $6.4 million.
8. "Law Abiding Citizen," $6.2 million.
9. "Where the Wild Things Are," $4.2 million.
10. "Astro Boy," $2.6 million.
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Universal Pictures and Focus Features are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.; 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.; Miramax is a division of 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.