The young-adult adaptation "The Maze Runner" raced to the top of the box-office with $32.5 million, giving a budding franchise a quick start out of the gate.
The 20th Century Fox release easily outpaced the $13.1 million debut of Liam Neeson's hardboiled private eye thriller "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and the $11.9 million opening for the ensemble-cast dramedy "This Is Where I Leave You," according to studio estimates Sunday.
The strong opening for "The Maze Runner," adapted from James Dashner's science-fiction YA novel, is a big success for a movie that cost $34 million to make and was released in the normally quiet month of September. Fox aimed to make the film — about a group of teenage boys mysteriously locked inside a giant maze — the first post-summer event movie, putting it on IMAX and large-format screens.
"Our little $34 million-budgeted film is pretty darn strong," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for Fox. "No one had launched a YA title in September. We took a risk, but it paid off.
Aronson said attracting young moviegoers has been "the Achilles heel" of Hollywood in recent years. But the studio has recently found success with relatively low-budget YA releases, like "The Fault in Our Stars," the Shailene Woodley melodrama that made $125 million earlier this year despite a budget of just $12 million.
"It shows the pitch-perfect strategic planning of Fox," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "Teenagers are probably the most fickle creatures on the planet to figure out. So marketing to this particular group is tricky and there have been a lot of casualties in this YA war."
But "The Maze Runner," which drew a 51 percent female audience despite an almost all-male cast, is now a promising franchise. Its opening was further boosted by $37.6 million internationally. Aronson announced Sunday that the planned sequel, "The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials," will bow Sept. 18 next year.
While Neeson's box-office strength has been hard to beat in recent years, Universal's darker, R-rated "A Walk Among the Tombstones" came in well below the track record established by his "Taken" series or, from earlier this year, "Non-Stop." Neeson stars as a justice-seeking former NYPD detective.
Warner Bros.' "This Is Where I Leave You," about a large suburban family sitting Shiva for the funeral of their patriarch, boasted an A-list ensemble cast including Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Jane Fonda.
But such adult fare rarely lights up the box office, even when directed by a filmmaker with a proven record of attracting crowds. The film, adapted from Jonathan Trooper's best seller, was directed by Shawn Levy, who is best known for broader comedies like the "Night at the Museum" franchise.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Rentrak. Where available, the latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Maze Runner," $32.5 million ($37.6 million international).
2. "A Walk Among the Tombstones," $13.1 million ($5 million international).
3. "This Is Where I Leave You," $11.9 million.
4. "No Good Deed," $10.2 million.
5. "Dolphin Tale 2," $9 million ($1.2 million international).
6. "Guardians of the Galaxy," $5.2 million ($5.2 million international).
7. "Let's Be Cops," $2.7 million ($1.5 million international).
8. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," $2.7 million ($7.3 million international).
9. "The Drop," $2.1 million.
10. "If I Stay," $1.8 million ($3.2 million international).
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada), according to Rentrak:
1. "The Maze Runner," $37.6 million.
2. "Lucy," $13 million.
3. "The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," $8.2 million.
4. "Sex Tape," $7.6 million.
5. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," $7.3 million.
6. "Non-Stop," $7 million.
7. "One Step Away," $6 million.
8. "Into the Storm," $5.7 million.
9. "Guardians of the Galaxy," $5.2 million.
(tie) "Hercules," $5.2 million.
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by 21st Century Fox; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.