Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail" reigned at the weekend box office, opening with $41.1 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
It was the highest grossing film debut ever for both Perry and the film's studio, Lionsgate. Since Perry's 2005 "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" - his highest previous debut with $30 million - the actor-director-producer's films have frequently opened strongly, while generating little mainstream buzz.
Perry's box office clout has lessened recently, but the success of "Madea Goes to Jail" reinforces the notion that Perry draws the largest audience when he dons a frumpy dress as his trademark grandmother character, Madea.
Steve Rothenberg, president of distribution at Lionsgate, said the debut of "Madea" was the studio's best opening in its 14-year history. The studio's previous top opening was the $33.6 million debut of 2006's "Saw III."
"You could argue that Madea is now the top female box office star in Hollywood," said Rothenberg, whose studio has distributed all seven of Perry's films, several of which were released straight to DVD. "The character is one of the great screen creations of the last decade."
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media By Numbers, said Perry has "tapped into something here that is irresistible to moviegoers ... Madea may have gone to jail, but Tyler Perry is going to the bank."
Landing second was 20th Century Fox's revenge thriller "Taken," which earned $11.4 million in its fourth weekend of release, bringing its cumulative total to $95.2 million.
"Madea" was one of only two new releases. The other, Sony's cheerleader comedy "Fired Up," took in $6 million
Last weekend's top earner - "Friday the 13th," released under the Warner Bros. banner New Line Cinema - saw a steep drop in ticket sales, as is common for horror movies in weeks following their initial releases. After earning $43.6 million last weekend, it took in $7.8 million in its second.
The Academy Award nominees for best picture largely saw an increase in sales as moviegoers took to theaters for their last chance to see the nominees before the awards ceremony Sunday night.
Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire," which added 610 theaters from its previous week, took in $8 million, bringing its total to $98 million.
The Weinstein Company's "The Reader" earned $2.8 million for a cumulative total of $23.2 million. Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" took in $1.3 million for its best pic nominee-leading gross of $124.2 million. Focus Features' "Milk" added $1.1 million for a $28.2 million total. And Universal's "Frost/Nixon" earned $678,000 for a total of $17.4 million.
"Benjamin Button" was the only best picture nominee not to see an increase over the previous weekend. The bumps for "Milk," "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon" were relatively slight for best picture nominees, though not unforeseen.
"They were never destined to be huge box office hits," said Dergarabedian.
Even if the Oscar bump wasn't as pronounced this year, the overall box office performance for 2009 continues to be exceptional. Movies such as "Gran Torino," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and now "Madea Goes to Jail" have performed better than expected.
When the economy slows down, moviegoing typically ramps up - and in the current recession that old axiom is again proving true. The total gross of the weekend's top 12 films was $119.8 million, an increase of 33 percent over the same weekend last year, according to Media by Numbers.
"This is the strongest box office start to the year that I've ever seen," said Dergarabedian. "This is the recessionary effect, funneling people that otherwise might be doing other things straight to movie theaters."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail," $41.1 million.
2. "Taken," $11.4 million.
3. "Coraline," $11 million.
4. "He's Just Not That Into You," $8.5 million.
5. "Slumdog Millionaire," $8.1 million.
6. "Friday the 13th," $7.8 million.
7. "Confessions of a Shopaholic," $7 million.
8. "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," $7 million.
9. "Fired Up," $6 million.
10. "The International," $4.5 million.
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