The high-flying thriller preceded by months of unprecedented Web buildup technically debuted as the No. 1 movie, but with a modest $15.25 million opening weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday.
Distributor New Line Cinema included $1.4 million that "Snakes on a Plane" raked in during 10 p.m. screenings Thursday to get a head start on the weekend. Without those revenues, the movie's weekend total would be $13.85 million, putting it just behind "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," which took in $14.1 million in its third weekend.
David Tuckerman, New Line's head of distribution, said it was customary for studios to include late-night previews in a movie's opening-weekend total.
"It's an industry standard to do that, to roll that in," Tuckerman said. "Also, with this kind of picture, I would tell you unequivocally that at least 90 percent of that business would have gone to see it Friday night if not Thursday."
Rory Bruer, head of distribution at "Talladega Nights" studio Sony, declined to comment.
Box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations ranks movies according to numbers provided by studios, putting "Snakes on a Plane" in first place based on New Line's figures, said company president Paul Dergarabedian.
Starring Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver obsessed with winning, the comedy "Talladega Nights" was No. 1 at the box office the previous two weekends and raised its three-week total to $114.7 million.
With its campy, tell-it-like-it-is title and the star power of lead actor Samuel L. Jackson, "Snakes on a Plane" became an online phenomenon, prompting endless Web chat and parodies long before anyone saw the movie.
That buzz proved fairly hollow when it came to showtime, with the debut weekend a respectable but unremarkable return for a movie with a production budget of just over $30 million.
New Line's Tuckerman said "Snakes on a Plane" would turn in a solid profit but that he did not know why the movie failed to live up to its Internet hype.
"I think people were more excited about the marketing than the actual movie," said Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations. "New Line did not set out to create this Internet buzz. That's actually a marketer's dream, but when marketing translates into awareness but does not inspire people to get out from behind their computers and into the theater, that's a problem."
The movie stars Jackson as an FBI agent battling killer snakes that have been put on a red-eye flight to do away with a witness about to testify in a murder trial.
Universal Pictures' comedy "Accepted," about slackers who start their own college, had the next-best showing among new movies, debuting at No. 4 with $10.1 million. MGM's "Material Girls," starring Hilary and Haylie Duff as cosmetics heiresses, opened at No. 9 with $4.6 million.
The year's biggest hit, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," was No. 8 with $5 million, lifting its domestic total to $401 million.
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. "Snakes on a Plane," $15.25 million.
2. "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," $14.1 million.
3. "World Trade Center," $10.8 million.
4. "Accepted," $10.1 million.
5. "Step Up," $9.9 million.
6. "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals," $7.5 million.
7. "Little Miss Sunshine," $5.7 million.
8. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," $5 million.
9. "Material Girls," $4.6 million.
10. "Pulse," $3.5 million.