The fifth film in the Sony Screen Gems action franchise, starring Milla Jovovich, debuted at No. 1, the studio reported Sunday.
That topped the 3-D re-release of the Disney Pixar animated favorite "Finding Nemo," which opened in second place with $17.5 million.
And in limited release, "The Master" had a staggeringly strong opening, making $729,745 on just five screens in New York and Los Angeles, The Weinstein Co. reported. That's a record-smashing per-screen average of $145,949. The Paul Thomas Anderson drama stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix as his wayward protege.
The 3-D "Resident Evil: Retribution" was directed by Jovovich's husband, Paul W.S. Anderson, who has made three of the five films. It features the actress once again as the warrior Alice, the last hope for the human race as an evil corporation unleashes a deadly virus that creates more flesh-eating undead on a worldwide scale. And fittingly, the film performed even better internationally, where it made a healthy $50 million.
"You have to give so much credit for that to Milla," said Rory Bruer, Sony's head of distribution. "She's such an incredible star and absolutely just works so hard in every country. Whether it's Russia or Japan, everywhere she's gone, she's worked so hard in regards to making the franchise a success."
The re-do of "Finding Nemo" follows in a recent tradition of Disney converting its classic animated movies into 3-D for a whole new audience. The 2003 underwater comedy about a tiny, lost fish named Nemo, featuring the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres and Willem Dafoe, won the Academy Award for best animated feature.
Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com, said the No. 1-opening for the latest "Resident Evil" movie came as a bit of a surprise. He figured "Finding Nemo" would come out on top, given the track record of the Pixar brand and the strong opening a year ago of Disney's "The Lion King" in 3-D, which debuted at No. 1 with $30.1 million.
"The Screen Gems label, they know how to create a profit-making franchise," Dergarabedian said. "It's become so important if you have a star who resonates in the international marketplace - you can have a real winner worldwide."
Last week's No. 1 movie, the Lionsgate exorcism thriller "The Possession," fell to third place with an estimated $5.8 million. It's now made about $41.2 million over the past three weeks.
Among the other new movies this weekend, "Arbitrage" opened in 12th place in limited release with nearly $2.1 million. Richard Gere stars as a hedge-fund billion juggling scandals that could destroy him personally and professionally.
The huge opening for "The Master" beats the per-screen-average record for a live-action feature debut set earlier this year by Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," which made $522,996 when it opened on four screens in May for an average of $130,749.
"Paul Thomas Anderson, among film buffs and film fans, is a directing god," Dergarabedian said. "He's on Mount Rushmore with Christopher Nolan and some other great filmmakers. When he puts out a movie, it's a long lead time - we're forced to wait for a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. 'There Will Be Blood' was 2007.
"In the independent world, directors are the stars," he added. "They draw people to the theater and fill theaters."
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. "Resident Evil: Retribution," $21.1 million ($50 million international).
2. "Finding Nemo," $17.5 million.
3. "The Possession," $5.8 million.
4. "Lawless," $4.2 million.
5. "ParaNorman," $3 million.
6. "The Expendables 2," $3 million.
7. "The Words," $2.88 million.
8. "The Bourne Legacy," $2.875 million.
9. "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," $2.5 million.
10. "The Campaign," $2.4 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.