Darkened theaters turned into mass seances as the summer's latest fright film, the tale of a boy who talks with the dead, debuted at No. 1 in North American theaters.
The psychological thriller The Sixth Sense starring Bruce Willis and Toni Collette took in $25.8 million, according to industry estimates.
Low-budget horror hit The Blair Witch Project stayed in second place with $24.5 million. Last week's top movie, the Julia Roberts-Richard Gere comedy Runaway Bride, fell to third with $21 million.
The Thomas Crown Affair, a Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo remake of the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway crime caper, opened at No. 4 with $14.6 million. The superhero comic-book spoof Mystery Men premiered in sixth place with $10 million.
Iron Giant, an animated film about a robot who falls to Earth, took in $5.7 million to debut at No. 9. Dick, a satiric retelling of the Watergate scandal through the antics of President Nixon's teen-age dog-walkers and secret advisers, came in a disappointing 11th with $2.2 million in its first weekend, for a total of $3.4 million since opening Wednesday.
Despite a low-key ad campaign, The Sixth Sense managed to rise above a crowd of new releases, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which tracks box office ticket sales. The movie ads used hushes and whispers to intrigue filmgoers, he said.
"They say when you whisper, it gets people to listen. They did listen in this case," Dergarabedian said. "People are just hungry for horror movies."
Along with four other major new releases, The Sixth Sense had to contend with Runaway Bride and Blair Witch, which earned a combined $64.3 million last weekend. Runaway Bride has taken in $74.1 million in 10 days, while Blair Witch has grossed $80.2 million, most of it since going into wide release 10 days ago.
"Even in the face of blockbusters like that, we were able to work through the clutter," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney, which released The Sixth Sense.
The Sixth Sense was the highest-grossing movie ever to open in August, surpassing The Fugitive, which took in $23.7 million in 1993. It was Willis' second-best opening ever, behind Armageddon, which grossed $36 million in its debut last summer.
Playing in 2,161 theaters, the movie averaged $11,939 a screen. Blair Witch, which did a stratospheric $26,528 a screen when it hit wide release last weekend, averaged $11,438 in 2,142 theaters this weekend.
Artisan Entertainment, distributor of Blair Witch, and its filmmakers spent just $350,000 producing the movie. Artisan expects it to top $100 million at the box office by next weekend.
"If Sixth Sense wasn't out this weekend, we clearly would have been No. 1," said Steve Rothenberg, Artisan executiv vice president of domestic distribution.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace finally dropped out of the top 10 after 11 weeks. The movie came in at No. 12 with $2.2 million, for a domestic total of $412.8 million.
Estimated grosses for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.:
1. The Sixth Sense, $25.8 million.
2. The Blair Witch Project, $24.5 million.
3. Runaway Bride, $21 million.
4. The Thomas Crown Affair, $14.6 million.
5. Deep Blue Sea, $11 million.
6. Mystery Men, $10 million.
7. Inspector Gadget, $8.4 million.
8. The Haunting, $6.3 million.
9. Iron Giant, $5.7 million.
10. American Pie, $4 million.
[To see the official Web site for The Sixth Sense, click here.]
Written by David Germain