Audiences were more than curious to check out the big-screen adaptation of the racy phenomenon "Fifty Shades of Grey" this weekend. The erotic R-rated drama sizzled in its debut, earning an estimated $81.7 million from 3,646 theaters in its first three days, distributor Universal Pictures said on Sunday.
In addition to destroying Valentine's and Presidents Day weekend records, "Fifty Shades of Grey" has also become the second-highest February debut ever, behind "Passion of the Christ's" $83.9 million opening in 2004.
The chart-topping film cost a modest $40 million to produce. Starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, it could be on track to earn over $90 million across the four-day holiday weekend.
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"Our fondest wishes were realized," said Universal's President of Domestic Distribution Nick Carpou. "This is one of those moments where I can speak for the entire studio and say we're celebrating."
Carpou was especially pleased that audiences in large, mid-size, and small markets turned out to see the film despite weather challenges in the Northeast.
"We had a tremendous amount of interest from small-town exhibitors," said Carpou, noting strong outings in the South. "That speaks to their patrons really wanting to see the film as soon as possible and be part of what everyone is talking about."
According to Universal, North American audiences were 68 percent female.
Internationally, director Sam Taylor-Johnson's adaptation of E L James' book earned an estimated $158 million from 9,637 locations in 58 territories. That's the second biggest international opening for Universal, right behind the $160.3 million debut from "Fast & Furious 6," and the highest international opening for an R-rated film ever.
"Those are summer-style blockbuster numbers in February," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office firm Rentrak.
"Controversy, or at least the conversation that's created by 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' suddenly infuses this movie into the mainstream conversation," he added. "They had to very carefully create a movie that was edgy, push the envelope, but without going too far to make it socially unacceptable."
Director Matthew Vaughn's "Kingsman: The Secret Service" also exceeded expectations, landing in second place with an estimated $35.6 million from 3,204 locations across the three-day period, according to Rentrak.
The R-rated comic book adaptation starring Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson cost a reported $81 million to produce and should earn around $41 million across the four-day period.
Animated children's film "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" came in third with $30.5 million in its second weekend in theaters, falling only 45 percent. As one of the few family-friendly options in theaters, Paramount's PG-rated movie could pass $100 million by the end of the holiday weekend.
Rounding out the top five were holdovers "American Sniper," with $16.4 million, and "Jupiter Ascending," with $9.4 million.
The Oscar-nominated "American Sniper," now in its fifth weekend of wide release, has earned over $300 million in North America to date.
"We should learn in 2015 to not underestimate how well films can do," Dergarabedian said. "Coming off a 2014 where we were down 5.2 percent, where a lot of movies did not live up to expectations, 2015 is right now running like a freight train toward the first $11 billion year in North America."