HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" dominated the nation's box office with an estimated $61.5 million at 3,622 theaters during the Friday-Sunday period, studio sources said Sunday.
New Line's much-anticipated sequel to last year's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" has now taken in $101.5 million in its first five days and looks likely to approach the same territory as the first, which topped $313 million domestically. "The Two Towers" is already $26 million ahead of the first five days of "Fellowship."
The opening Friday-Sunday for "Towers" was the 12th biggest of all time and the fifth highest of 2002, which saw "Spider-Man" shatter records with a $114.8 million debut on the first weekend of May. Heading into the final nine days of the year, domestic box office is approaching $8.7 billion, about 12 percent ahead of the same point in 2001.
Thanks to "The Two Towers," the total for the top 10 came in at an impressive $127 million, $8 million ahead of the same weekend last year.
"The Two Towers" benefited from strong reviews, a massive marketing campaign and the lingering positive impact of the better-than-expected performance of "Fellowship," which received 13 Oscar nominations.
"The numbers for 'The Two Towers' are spectacular but not surprising,' said movie industry analyst Arthur Rockwell of Rockwell Capital Management. "People know that this film has 'hit' written all over it so its opening really became a big event."
New Line also reported "Towers" has grossed $85 million in two dozen overseas markets. It has already set Dec. 17, 2003, as the opening for the final film of the trilogy, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King."
Finishing a distant second was Warner Bros.' opening of romantic comedy "Two Weeks Notice," starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, with a moderate $14.4 million at 2,755 theaters. "It looks like there was some interest in this film but it also seems as if it didn't really click in terms of the audience perceiving much chemistry," Rockwell noted.
"Two Weeks Notice" may have suffered from opening only a week after Sony rolled an entry in the romantic comedy genre, "Maid in Manhattan," which came in third with $11 million at 2,866 theaters. "Maid" declined by 41 percent from its opening Friday-Sunday and has topped $35 million in 10 days.
Miramax's opening of Martin Scorsese's epic "Gangs of New York" followed in fourth with $9.1 million at 1,504 theaters. The drama, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis and centered on the violent clashes between rival gangs in the 1860s, had originally been scheduled to open a year ago.
"It's not a great opening for 'Gangs of New York' but it's too early to tell if this is going to catch on with moviegoers," Rockwell said. "A lot of it will depend on how it does during the awards season."
"Gangs" received five Golden Globe nominations last week including best drama and acting nominations for Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz.
20th Century Fox's second weekend of "Drumline" came in fifth with $7.6 million at 1,837 sites as it declined 40 percent. Paramount's opening of its animated "The Wild Thornberrys," based on the Nickelodeon cable cartoon series, posted lukewarm numbers in sixth with $6.1 million at 3,012 locations.
Four holdover films were battling for the last four slots in the top 10, led by Disney's second weekend of "The Hot Chick" with $4.51 million at 2,217 theaters, followed by Warner's sixth weekend of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" with $4.45 million at 2,750 theaters. "The Chamber of Secrets" has grossed $228.9 million in 38 days, placing it 30th on all-time domestic list ahead of "Signs."
Paramount's second weekend of "Star Trek: Nemesis" finished ninth with a disappointing $4.4 million at 2,711 theaters as the 10th "Star Trek" film slid 76 percent from its opening weekend. "It obviously lost a lot of its audience to "The Two Towers" and it does not auger well for how it will perform in the next few weeks," Rockwell said.
MGM's fifth weekend of "Die Another Day" rounded out of the top 10 with $4 million at 2,075 theaters to lift its 31-day gross to $138.5 million. "Day" now ranks as the 124th highest domestic grosser ahead of "Good Will Hunting."
Disney's eighth weekend of "The Santa Clause 2" came in 11th with $3.2 million at 1,701 sites to push its total to $128.7 million. Warner's third weekend of "Analyze That" followed with $2.3 million at 2,011 theaters as the sequel continued to under-perform with only $23.9 million in 17 days.
"The Two Towers" will likely continue to dominate over Christmas week but may see strong competition on Christmas Day, when DreamWorks opens "Catch Me If You Can," which also stars DiCaprio along with Tom Hanks. Miramax is also opening an English-language version of Roberto Benigni's "Pinocchio," which has performed well in Italy.
The art-house circuit saw a trio of high-profile dramas open to qualify for Academy Award consideration, including Paramount's "Narc" with $66,000 at six theaters, Fox Searchlight's "Antwone Fisher" with $217,258 at 15 screens and Disney's "25th Hour" with $109,811 at five theaters. A quartet of Oscar contenders -- Paramount's "The Hours," United Artists' "Nicholas Nickleby," Miramax's "Chicago" and Focus' "The Pianist" -- will open in limited runs next weekend.