Box Office: Affleck's The Town Gets an Easy A

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Ben Affleck in a scene from The Town (pictured with Jeremy Renner)

No more Ben Affleck jokes. No "Ben Afflecktion" or quacking his last name in the voice of an insurance-company duck. No South Park episodes in which the actor falls in love with Eric Cartman's hand puppet, mistaking it for Jennifer Lopez. Not today, anyway, for the tabloid-fodder fave of 2004 is now a star auteur. The Town, the heist drama that Affleck directed, co-scripted and took the leading role in, was the surprise winner of this weekend's North American box office, with $23.8 million, according to early studio estimates. Affable Ben is No. 1 again.

After a laggard Labor Day frame and last week's tepid, no-contest victory for the fourth Resident Evil horror film, Hollywood could finally cheer the onset of the fall season. Right behind The Town was the movie that prognosticators had said would take the weekend: the cheeky, high-IQ teen comedy Easy A, with a starmaking role for critics' darling Emma Stone as a virginal high school girl who becomes notorious because her classmates think she's a slut. The film, made for a mere $8 million, took in $18.2 million and was one of five Sony pictures in this weekend's top 10 (along with Resident Evil: Afterlife, Takers, The Other Guys and Eat Pray Love.) In third place, earning $12.6 million, was Devil, the M. Night Shyamalan "presentation" of a horror film about people trapped in an elevator ... with Satan.

This was the first weekend since mid-February that debut films took the first three slots. Mind you, back then, Valentine's Day, The Wolfman and Percy Jackson & the Olympians earned a burly total of $119 million, more than twice the $53.6 million that this weekend's trio amassed. Still, that's the highest take for the top three films in five weeks, which proves that folks will go to the movies, even if it's not summer, as long as they think there's something new worth seeing.

The studios smartly angled their quartet of new films to different segments of the audience. The Town, the one R-rated action film in the bunch, lured older males and upmarket audiences. Easy A appealed to teen girls; the weekend audience was 67% female and 49% under 18. Devil was for the young males who weren't all horrored out after Resident Evil: Afterlife. And the animated feature Alpha and Omega, which finished fifth, was a wildlife film for the kiddies. As it happens, the box office returns of the four films reflected their ratings on the review website Rotten Tomatoes: The Town, 93%; Easy A, 85%; Devil, 41%; Alpha and Omega, a pathetic 15%. But Alpha and Omega had at least one money quote: a User Reviewer on the Internet Movie Database declared it "Best Wolf Movie Since Balto!"

For the mass moviegoer, though, The Town was the best Boston-based crime film since 2006's The Departed, starring Affleck's old pal (and fellow Oscar winner, for the Good Will Hunting screenplay) Matt Damon. Ben the director gave Ben the actor his biggest opening in a starring role since the $40.3 million The Daredevil cadged back in 2003. (Last year's ensemble comedy He's Just Not That into You doesn't count; if your surname begins with Aff-, you will be first on most alphabetical cast lists.) The Town also earned more in its first weekend than the $20.3 million that Affleck's well-regarded directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, made in its entire run. The star flogged his wares everywhere, from the Venice Film Festival for its world premiere to the Toronto Film Festival last weekend to a guest spot on The Daily Show this past week. (Two days after Affleck, The Town co-star Jon Hamm was also a Jon Stewart visitor.) No question, the door-to-door salesmanship paid off.

In indie action, Catfish, the documentary about a photographer who is lured into a Facebook relationship that is not what it seemed, opened sharply with $255,000 on 12 screens. Never Let Me Go, the delicate science-fiction love-and-death story, earned $120,830 in four N.Y. and L.A. theaters, for the weekend's highest per-screen average. "This is a great start in a crowded market with a Jewish holiday," Fox Searchlight's Sheila DeLoach told Peter Knegt of IndieWire. DeLoach must mean that next weekend, with the High Holy Days over and observant Jews again available to see movies, the box office take should be astronomical.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Town, $23.8 million, first weekend
2. Easy A, $18.2 million, first weekend
3. Devil, $12.6 million, first weekend
4. Resident Evil: Afterlife, $10.1 million; $44 million, second week
5. Alpha and Omega, $9.2 million, first weekend
6. Takers, $3 million; $52.3 million, fourth week
7. The American, $2.8 million; $32.9 million, third week
8. Inception, $2.015 million; $285.2 million, 10th week
9. The Other Guys, $2 million; $115.4 million, seventh week
10. Eat Pray Love, $1.7 million; $77.7 million, sixth week — tied with Machete, $1.7 million; $24.3 million, third week