Billy Bob Thornton's "Friday Night Lights," based on the real-life fervor for high school football in small-town Odessa, Texas, debuted in second place with $20.6 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
Another holdover, the firefighting drama "Ladder 49," came in third with $13.3 million, while the Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon action comedy "Taxi" had a so-so opening weekend of $12.05 million to place fourth.
The weekend's other new wide release, Hilary Duff's teen tale "Raise Your Voice," debuted at a weak No. 6 with $4.6 million.
Expanding to wider release after two weeks in a limited run, "The Motorcycle Diaries" broke into the top 10, grossing $1.4 million for ninth place. The film chronicles a road trip taken by the young Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a pal across South America.
The overall box office was virtually unchanged compared to the same weekend last year, with the top 12 movies taking in $98.3 million.
With the family audience almost to itself, "Shark Tale" held up especially well, its haul down just 33 percent from opening weekend. The movie lifted its 10-day total to $87.7 million.
"Ladder 49," starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix, also had a solid hold, its gross down 40 percent from its first weekend to raise its total to $42.2 million.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's 1990 best seller, "Friday Night Lights" stars Thornton as Permian High School football coach Gary Gaines as he steers his team toward a championship run.
The movie had been aimed largely at young males, but it captured a fairly wide audience, with 54 percent of viewers older than 25 and women making up 44 percent of the crowds, according to distributor Universal Studios.
"I think it's the fact that it's a true story, and the fact that is has a lot of heart, which bodes well even for females," said Nikki Rocco, Universal head of distribution. "I loved it because it really delves into the feeling of what it's like to be so committed to something."
Among the new movies, "Friday Night Lights" earned high marks from critics, while reviewers generally trashed "Taxi" and "Raise Your Voice."
"You can really attribute the gross on `Friday Night Lights' to the strong reviews," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "It's a football movie and has appeal to a lot of high schoolers at this time of year, but much of the audience for a movie like that decides to see a movie based on reviews."
In limited release, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes' Restoration-era theater drama "Stage Beauty" did solid business, opening with $39,000 in three theaters.
The techno-thriller "Primer," the top dramatic prize winner at last winter's Sundance Film Festival, also debuted in three theaters and pulled in $30,360.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
- "Shark Tale," $31.7 million.
- "Friday Night Lights," $20.6 million.
- "Ladder 49," $13.3 million.
- "Taxi," $12.05 million.
- "The Forgotten," $7.5 million.
- "Raise Your Voice," $4.6 million.
- "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," $2.3 million.
- "Shaun of the Dead," $1.6 million.
- "The Motorcycle Diaries," $1.4 million.
- "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," $1.25 million.