LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Heads rolled at the weekend box office in North America as the blood-soaked ancient epic "300" slaughtered its foes in spectacular fashion.
The grim warrior tale sold an estimated $70 million worth of tickets during its first three days of release, setting a new record for a March release, the film's distributor Warner Bros. Pictures said on Sunday.
Heading into the weekend, the most bullish oracles had forecast an opening in the $50 million range. The special-effects extravaganza, with a largely unknown cast, cost in the mid-$60 million range to produce, the Time Warner Inc-owned studio said.
Scottish actor Gerard Butler stars as Leonidas, the hunky king of the Spartans, who leads 300 of his warriors to glorious death at the Battle of Thermopylae against a massive Persian army commanded by the fey king Xerxes (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro). Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead") directed the adaptation of comic book writer Frank Miller's graphic novel.
"300" earned largely positive reviews, despite or because of its myriad decapitations and balletic battlefield carnage. The last few chart-toppers, incumbent champ "Wild Hogs," "Ghost Rider" and "Norbit" were slammed by the critics.
Audiences were "hungry to go to something that looks this unique," said Mark Canton, one of the film's producers.
Even though "300" is tailor-made for male moviegoers, it also rated highly with women, because the filmmakers enlarged the role of Leonidas' queen (played by Lena Headey) to make her a "true partner" of the king, Canton said.
Its achievement was all the more noteworthy given that the previous record-holder for the month, 2006's "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown," with $68 million, was a family-oriented cartoon, while "300" is an unabashedly gruesome spectacle with an "R" rating that prevents viewers under 17 attending without adult supervision.
In fact, the opening for "300" ranks as the third-highest for an R-rated movie, behind "The Matrix Reloaded" ($91 million) and "The Passion of the Christ" ($83 million).
"300" also opened in a few small Asian markets, and reaches Britain in two weeks, said Canton. Action-packed period epics, such as 2004's "Troy," often do much better overseas.
Walt Disney Co.'s surprise hit "Wild Hogs," starring John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy and Tim Allen as unlikely road warriors, slipped to No. 2 with $28 million; its 10-day total rose to $77.4 million.
The next three movies were separated by less than $100,000, and rankings could change when final data are released on Monday. Disney's childhood saga "Bridge to Terabithia" rose one to No. 3 with $6.9 million, followed by Columbia Pictures' Nicolas Cage action movie "Ghost Rider" and Paramount Pictures' serial-killer thriller "Zodiac" with about $6.8 million each.
"Bridge to Terabithia" has earned $67.0 million after four weeks, and "Ghost Rider" $104.1 million, also after four weeks. "Ghost Rider" is the first 2007 release to cross the century mark; the "Ice Age" sequel took the honors last year in the second week of April. "Zodiac" has $23.7 million after two weeks. Columbia Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp. Paramount Pictures is a unit of Viacom Inc.