LOS ANGELES - A heroin pusher and a honey bee put some sting back into the movie business. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe's bloody crime saga "American Gangster" took in $46.3 million to lead the weekend box office, with Jerry Seinfeld's family cartoon "Bee Movie" following with $39.1 million. Together, the movies revitalized Hollywood's listless autumn.
"It took three of the biggest stars in the world to get the box office back on track, and they did it in high style with two totally different kinds of movies," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "You had an R-rated movie and a PG-rated movie bringing in a really diverse audience."
After six-straight weekends of declining revenues, overall business rose, with the top-12 movies taking in $127.2 million, up 12 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" was No. 1 with $26.5 million.
Universal's "American Gangster," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Washington as 1970s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas and Crowe as a Jersey cop on his trail, rode a wave of acclaim and Academy Awards buzz to debut at the top of the box office.
Audiences had been relatively disinterested this fall in serious R-rated films aimed at adults. Many of those earlier movies were box-office underachievers despite critical praise, but "American Gangster" landed with both good reviews and packed theaters.
Washington is known for heroic roles, yet as he did with his Oscar-winning turn as a bad cop in "Training Day," he imbues Lucas with charm and charisma even as the man carries out savage deeds.
"American Gangster" was the biggest opening ever for the film's two stars. Crowe's previous best was $34.8 million for "Gladiator," also directed by Scott, while Washington's was $29 million for "Inside Man."
"These are two great actors telling this true story of Frank Lucas," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution at Universal. "You couldn't have picked a better cast."
DreamWorks and Paramount's "Bee Movie" features Seinfeld in his first big project since his TV sit-com went off the air nine years ago. Co-written by Seinfeld, the movie has him providing the voice of a bee who sues humanity for stealing his species' hard-earned commodity - honey.
"Bee Movie" owned the family crowd, and studio executives said they expect the movie to hold up well through the holidays. It does face direct competition this weekend with Friday's debut of the Warner Bros. holiday comedy "Fred Claus," starring Vince Vaughn as Santa's black-sheep brother and Paul Giamatti as St. Nick.
"We look forward to seeing how it plays out, but it really looks like there's some strong playing time ahead for both movies," said Anne Globe, head of marketing for DreamWorks.
The weekend's other new wide release - New Line Cinema's "Martian Child," starring John Cusack as a widower adopting a troubled boy who thinks he's from Mars - opened weakly with $3.65 million, finishing at No. 7.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "American Gangster," $46.3 million.
2. "Bee Movie," $39.1 million.
3. "Saw IV," $11 million.
4. "Dan in Real Life," $8.1 million.
5. "30 Days of Night," $4 million.
6. "The Game Plan," $3.85 million.
7. "Martian Child," $3.65 million.
8. "Michael Clayton," $2.9 million.
9. "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?", $2.7 million.
10. "Gone Baby Gone," $2.4 million.