In a business obsessed with opening weekends, the second weekend of "Inception" may be Hollywood's biggest news of the summer.
The complex thriller from director Christopher Nolan sold a studio-estimated $43.5-million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada on its second weekend, off just 31% from its opening. That's the smallest such decline for any movie this year and one of the best ever for a film that didn't play its second weekend over a holiday.
Most big-budget summer movies experience second weekend drops of more than 50%.
A predicted tight race for the top of the box-office chart wasn't, as the Angelina Jolie action movie "Salt" opened to a good but not great $36.5 million.
Helped by strong weekday ticket sales, "Inception" has brought in $143.7 million in 10 days.
With moviegoers, particularly younger ones, spreading word that the movie is a "must see" and some coming back for repeat viewings, "Inception" is on track to gross more than $300 million domestically. It has a good shot at exceeding the $311 million grossed by "Iron Man 2" to become the second-most-popular release of the summer, behind only "Toy Story 3."
"This kind of magic doesn't come along very often, and it indicates that we're going to have a great shelf life," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for "Inception" distributor Warner Bros. "Exhibitors are reporting that our audience included a lot of people coming for the second or third time."
Warner and co-financier Legendary Pictures are positioned to make a hefty profit on the $160 million they spent to produce "Inception," particularly given expectations that the film will perform even better internationally than it does domestically.
Its success positions Nolan, whose name and resume were cited more frequently in the movie's $100-million-plus marketing campaign than star Leonardo DiCaprio, as one of Hollywood's most commercially successful directors of recent times. Coming off his $1-billion-grossing 2008 success "The Dark Knight," "Inception" is Nolan's first movie not based on existing source material to become a hit.
Sony Pictures is betting that the domestic opening weekend won't be the big story for "Salt" either. Though the high-octane action movie had a pretty good start, the studio hopes it will play well for a few weeks and, more importantly, that it will generate much higher returns overseas.
In an age when the power of A-list stars to draw audience is fading, Jolie remains one of the few big names, along with Will Smith, who reliably draw international moviegoers.
"It was a terrific start in the U.S., and we feel certain it's going to be a huge hit worldwide," said Sony distribution president Rory Bruer.
Most summer action movies draw a younger male audience, but "Salt" did just the opposite, based on the appeal of Jolie and also largely positive reviews. According to exit polling, 53% of filmgoers were female, and 59% were older than 25. That's potentially good news for the picture's playability, since adults are more likely than teenagers to come to a movie after it opens.
Even if it ends up with a little more than $100 million domestically, as seems likely, "Salt" still needs to do much better overseas. Sony and financing partner Relativity Media spent about $130 million to make the movie, according to a person close to the production, though a studio spokesman said tax credits brought the cost down to less than $110 million.
"Salt" opened in only 17 small foreign markets this weekend, taking in $5.1 million and enjoying a strong start in India.
"Ramona and Beezus," the only other movie to open nationwide this weekend, failed to draw the family crowd it targeted. 20th Century Fox and Walden Media's inexpensive adaptation of the children's book series by Beverly Cleary opened to a weak $8 million.
In limited release, the Sundance Film Festival favorite "The Kids Are All Right" continues to play extremely well. Focus Features expanded the offbeat family drama, which stars Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, to 210 theaters from 38 and collected $2.7 million, or $13,173 per theater.
On Friday, "Kids" will expand substantially, to more than 500 theaters, as Focus tries to convert the indie drama into a mainstream hit.