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* "The Expendables" opens to $35 million
* Roberts' "Eat Pray Love" follows with $23.7 million
* "Scott Pilgrim" bombs with $10.5 million (Updates with studio reaction, background)
LOS ANGELES, Aug 15 Sylvester Stallone outmuscled Julia Roberts at the weekend box office in North America on Sunday to score the biggest opening of his career with his new film "The Expendables."
The action hero's all-star mercenary thriller earned an estimated $35 million across the United States and Canada during its first three days of release, distributor Lionsgate said.
The opening, which was in line with bullish expectations, marks a boost not only for Stallone, who directed and co-wrote the project as well, but also for Lionsgate, whose Lions Gate Entertainment Corp (LGF.N) parent is fending off a hostile takeover from investor Carl Icahn.
The film, predictably, played strongest with older men who are nostalgic for '80s action flicks with high body counts and loud explosions. A sequel is reportedly in the works.
Julia Roberts, whose career has been almost as cold as Stallone's in recent years, followed at a distant No. 2 with "Eat Pray Love." The big-screen adaptation of a bestselling memoir about a woman's international search for herself, opened with $23.7 million, also in line with expectations.
The drama, which was targeted at older women, was released by Columbia Pictures. The Sony Corp (6758.T) (SNE.N) unit topped the box office last weekend with "The Other Guys." The Will Ferrell cop comedy fell to No. 3 with $18 million, taking its 10-day total to $70.5 million.
A third newcomer, the comic-book adaptation "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," bombed at No. 5 with $10.5 million. It marks the second disappointment this month for General Electric Co (GE.N)-owned distributor Universal Pictures, following "Charlie St. Cloud."
SCHWARZENEGGER, WILLIS CAMEOS
Stallone, 64, was last in theaters with a pair of modest retreads revisiting his glory days, 2008's "Rambo" and 2006's "Rocky Balboa." They opened to $18 million and $12 million, respectively.
His best opening, before accounting for ticket-price inflation was the $33 million start for the children's movie "Spy Kids 3D" in 2003. On an adjusted basis, he did better with a pair of films in 1985: "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Rocky IV," with about $45 million each, according to tracking firm Box Office Mojo.
"The Expendables," whose multinational lineup includes English tough guy Jason Statham, Sweden's Dolph Lundgren and Chinese martial-arts veteran Jet Li, revolves around a team of mercenaries who inflict carnage on a fictional South American dictatorship. Bruce Willis and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have cameos. Roberts' older brother, Eric, plays a villain.
Men accounted for 61 percent of the audience, and 60 percent of viewers were aged over 25, Lionsgate said.
The film was made by independent producer Avi Lerner's Nu Image/Millennium for about $85 million. Lionsgate paid $20 million for distribution rights in North America and Britain, where it opens on Thursday. The studio reportedly spent an additional $40 million marketing the film, a hefty sum for a small player.
Lionsgate's parent, which recently blamed a first-quarter loss on its Katherine Heigl box office bomb "Killers," is embroiled in a messy takeover battle with Icahn. The billionaire investor has accused company executives of mismanagement and poor cost controls.
Roberts, 42, has not opened a big movie by herself since "Erin Brockovich" kicked off with $28 million in 2000. Her recent disappointments include "Duplicity" and "Charlie Wilson's War."
Columbia noted that "Eat Pray Love" did better than the studio's similarly targeted Meryl Streep comedy "Julie and Julia," which opened to $20 million last summer on its way to $94 million. It predicted "Eat Pray Love" would play strongly into the early fall. The film cost about $60 million to make.
"Scott Pilgrim" looks to be an expensive flop for Universal, which reportedly spent $85 million making the film before tax credits reduced the tab to $60 million. The studio said it was "proud" of the movie. Reviews and exit polls were stronger than for "Expendables" and "Eat Pray Love." (Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Paul Simao)