The suspense tale about a recently divorced mother and her daughter hiding from burglars in a concrete-and-steel encased room in their New York home brought in $30.2 million since debuting on Friday.
That beat 1999's "The Matrix," which at $27.8 million had been the previous biggest Easter movie. "Panic Room" also marks the best opening for Foster, surpassing "Contact," which debuted with $20.2 million, according to Jeff Blake, president of international marketing for Sony Pictures Entertainment, a unit of Sony Corp., which released the movie.
"I think what really was the key to its success was that it was a full meal for adults and younger viewers. David Fincher directing and Jody Foster starring gave the movie a great pedigree for adults but played as a really exciting thriller for younger viewers," Blake said.
Among other new films, Dennis Quaid's "The Rookie" had the strongest debut, opening in third place with $15.8 million. Quaid stars in the real-life story of Jim Morris, a science teacher in his mid-30s who finally achieved his life's goal of pitching in the major leagues.
The science-fiction tale "Clockstoppers," about a teen with a watch that can halt time, premiered in fifth place with $10.1 million. The movie was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who plays Will Riker in the "Star Trek" franchise.
Danny DeVito's black comedy "Death to Smoochy," starring Robin Williams as a deposed children's show host seeking vengeance against his replacement (Edward Norton), tanked with just $4.3 million, coming in at No. 7.
The animated "Ice Age" became the first movie released this year to top $100 million. The film remained in the No. 2 spot for the second straight weekend with a weekend gross of $18.6 million, putting its 17-day total at $117.3 million.
"Blade II," last weekend's No. 1 movie, fell to fourth place with $13.2 million, a steep 59 percent drop from opening weekend. The film has grossed $54.9 million in 10 days.
Cashing in on its best-picture win at the Academy Awards, "A Beautiful Mind" expanded to 1,560 theaters, up 105, and took in $4 million. Its total rose to $161 million.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" joined "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" as the only movies released in 2001 to hit the $300 million mark.
The top 12 films grossed $114.4 million, up 39 percent from the same weekend a year ago and continuing a run of unusually strong weekends in March.
"This was the third weekend in a row with a movie opening over $30 million. That would be good news in the summer, let alone March," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "I think it's a strong indication of how big the summer's going to be."
Movie receipts this year are running 13 to 14 percent ahead of 2001, when Hollywood posted record revenue of $8.4 billion domestically. Like last summer, this year's busy season is crowded with potential hits, including the new "Star Wars" and "Austin Powers" movies, "Spider-Man," "Men in Black 2," "Stuart Little 2," Tom Hanks' "The Road to Perdition" and Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise's "Minority Report."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.:
1. "Panic Room," $30.2 million.
2. "Ice Age," $18.6 million.
3. "The Rookie," $15.8 million.
4. "Blade II," $13.2 million.
5. "Clockstoppers," $10.1 million.
6. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," $6.1 million.
7. "Deathy to Smoochy," $4.3 million.
8. "A Beautiful Mind," $4 million.
9. "We Were Soldiers," $3.53 million.
10. "Showtime," $3.5 million.