"The Social Network," director David Fincher's drama about the quarrelsome creation of the online juggernaut, debuted as the No. 1 weekend film with $23 million.
Distributor Sony hopes for a long shelf life for the film, which has earned Academy Awards buzz and rave reviews. Rory Bruer, Sony's head of distribution, said "The Social Network" has a good shot at becoming a $100 million hit.
"It really is a great start for us. This is a movie that is resonating everywhere. The reviews are the best I've seen at our studio in my career," Bruer said. "It's just one of those movies that critics and audiences alike are embracing, and I think it's going to have a tremendous life."
The weekend's other new wide releases had weak starts. Paramount's horror flick "Case 39," starring Renee Zellweger, opened at No. 7 with $5.35 million, while Overture Film's vampire tale "Let Me In," based on the novel "Let the Right One In," debuted at No. 8 with $5.3 million.
The Warner Bros. animated adventure "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," held up well, retaining the No. 2 spot in its second weekend with $10.9 million and raising its total to $30 million.
The previous weekend's top earner, 20th Century Fox's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," slipped to third place with $10.1 million, lifting its total to $35.9 million.
"The Social Network" traces the history of Facebook from Harvard University, where computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) launched the site, through its meteoric rise with 500 million members and a stock value in the billions.
The film also follows the nasty legal fight as Zuckerberg faces lawsuits by Saverin, who says he was cheated out of millions, and three other students who claim he stole the idea from them. Justin Timberlake co-stars as Napster founder Sean Parker. Facebook has called the film "fiction" about its founder, the notoriously private Zuckerberg.
With 55 percent of the audience 25 or older, the film joined other adult dramas now driving the box office, including the "Wall Street" sequel and Ben Affleck's "The Town," the Warner Bros. thriller that was No. 4 with $10 million, with a three-week total of $64.3 million.
"These are all examples of what were thought to be a dead genre. We had a number of adult dramas that didn't do any business, and now all of a sudden we've got a whole crop of them that aren't doing huge numbers, but they are dominating the box office," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst at Hollywood.com.
Overall business was down, with domestic movie revenues totaling $97 million, off 9 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Zombieland" led with $24.7 million, according to Hollywood.com.
Studios are banking on its wave of dramas for older crowds to carry the business until an onslaught of family flicks, big comedies and action tales arrives in November and December.
"There's a lot of choice, and I think they're all good. So I'm kind of excited that we've got quality films that can get us through October and into the holiday season," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution at 20th Century Fox.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Social Network," $23 million.
2. "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," $10.9
3. "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," $10.1 million.
4. "The Town," $10 million.
5. "Easy A," $7 million.
6. "You Again," $5.6 million.
7. "Case 39," $5.35 million.
8. "Let Me In," $5.3 million.
9. "Devil," $3.7 million.
10. "Alpha and Omega," $3 million.
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.