Mark Wahlberg, left, and Ben Foster star in "Contraband." (Patti Perret, Universal…)
Mark Wahlberg had the biggest opening of his career as an action star this weekend, as his crime thriller "Contraband" was the No. 1 pick at the box office.
The film about the ugly world of drug smuggling was the most popular movie over the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, grossing a solid $28.8 million domestically, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures.
Meanwhile, the classic animated fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," first released in 1991 and now in 3-D, collected a respectable $23.5 million over the long weekend. The faith-based musical "Joyful Noise," the weekend's third debut, trailed with a lackluster $13.8 million.
It was a good weekend at the box office overall, as ticket sales were up roughly 4% this year compared with the same period in 2011.
In "Contraband," a remake of the Icelandic hit "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," Wahlberg stars as a reformed con man who finds himself pulled back into a life of crime.
The film had a stronger opening than Wahlberg's last film, the 2010 critical hit "The Fighter," which opened with $12.1 million in wide release and went on to gross a strong $93.6 million in the U.S. and Canada. "Contraband" also got off to a far better start than the actor's last two action films: 2007's "Shooter" opened with $14.5 million, 2008's "Max Payne" with $17.6 million.
"I think Mark Wahlberg played a very big role in this strong opening. He's an action star that guys like and women love," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution.
Co-financed by Universal and Relativity Media for about $25 million, the film played to a slightly older crowd this weekend, with 55% of the audience over 30. Those who saw the film liked it, assigning it an average grade of A-, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
Overseas, "Contraband" opened in seven foreign countries, including Russia and Singapore, and grossed $1.5 million. The film will roll out in an additional 56 international markets over the next four months.
The results for the reissue of "Beauty and the Beast" bode well for Walt Disney Studios, which is planning 3-D re-releases of "Finding Nemo," "Monsters, Inc." and "The Little Mermaid" over the next two years. The studio decided to update a handful of titles from its animated catalog after enjoying surprising success re-releasing a 3-D version of "The Lion King" last fall. The jungle tale opened with a strong $30.2 million last September and ultimately brought in $94.2 million.
"We were hopeful coming off of a huge result with 'Lion King' that this wouldn't be a one-time phenomenon, and it wasn't," said Dave Hollis, executive vice president of distribution for Disney, which spent under $10 million to convert "Beauty" to 3-D. "The idea of being able to do a reissue is something that has to be reserved for a few titles that come with certain criteria. They have to have had a magnitude of box-office success, and the characters have to be timeless."
Still, the studio isn't expecting "Beauty" to perform as well as "The Lion King," as the animal story was far more popular than the fairy tale upon its initial release. The domestic take for 1994's "The Lion King" was $422.8 million, compared with "Beauty's" $171.4 million total.
"Joyful Noise" resonated with an older female audience this weekend — 73% of the crowd were women, and 65% were over the age of 35. The faith-based movie, which stars Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah as women trying to save their small-town church choir, played especially well in the South. The film sold the most tickets at a theater in Atlanta, and also did brisk business in Dallas and Charlotte, N.C. Those who saw the film liked it, giving it an A- CinemaScore.
Produced by Alcon Entertainment for about $25 million, "Joyful Noise" is being marketed and distributed by Warner Bros. The movie is the latest in a string of soft openings for Latifah, whose last big role was in 2010's "Just Wright," a romantic comedy that flopped, with $21.5 million in all. Parton hasn't starred in a major release in nearly two decades, since she starred in a number of commercially successful 1980s films including "Steel Magnolias" and "Nine to Five."