It was Sony Screen Gems' ninth top-opener this year, but its box office take was much less than the studio's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which took in more than $30 million in the same weekend a year ago.
"The summer (movie) season ended on a pretty high note, but the fall season is starting off a little slow," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "I don't think anyone expected this weekend to set the world on fire in terms of box office."
"The Covenant" opened in 2,681 theaters, drawing a screen average of $3,357 and knocking off the previous No. 1 movie, Disney's football drama "Invincible." The Mark Wahlberg flick dropped to third place with $5.8 million.
While "The Covenant" ruled among teen moviegoers, older audiences helped "Hollywoodland" grab the No. 2 spot with its $6 million debut.
The Focus Features' drama about the 1959 death of TV's Superman, George Reeves, stars Ben Affleck as Reeves, Diane Lane as his rich mistress and Adrien Brody as a private detective investigating Reeves' death.
It opened in just 1,548 cinemas but posted a per-theater average of $3,881 that was the highest among the top 10 movies.
The third film to crack the top 10 in its debut this weekend was "The Protector," a Weinstein Co. release that landed in the No. 4 spot with $5 million. "Crank," Lionsgate's action tale starring Jason Statham as a hit man, dropped from No. 2 to No. 5 with $4.8 million.
Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist," a drama set in 1900s Vienna and starring Edward Norton as a mysterious magician, continued to expand in its fourth week in theaters, taking in $4.6 million and the No. 6 spot.
Like "Hollywoodland" and Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Illusionist" is an example of how films from smaller or independent-minded studios are finding audiences after a summer of blockbusters.
"Little Miss Sunshine," starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell, dropped three notches to No. 7 this weekend with $4.4 million. Playing in 1,560 locations, the road-trip comedy averaged $2,837 per theater.
Meanwhile, moviegoers on Friday pushed the year's biggest hit, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," past the $1 billion box office threshold — only the third film to do so behind "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King."
After 10 weeks in theaters, the Johnny Depp sequel has grossed $416.6 million in the U.S. plus $587.5 million internationally.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Covenant," $9 million.
2. "Hollywoodland," $6 million.
3. "Invincible," $5.8 million.
4. "The Protector," $5 million.
5. "Crank," $4.8 million.
6. "The Illusionist," $4.6 million.
7. "Little Miss Sunshine," $4.4 million.
8. "The Wicker Man," $4.1 million
9. "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," $3 million.
10. "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals," $2.6 million.