Box office: Moviegoers flock to 'Taken 3,' 'Selma'

#boxoffice: 'Taken 3' debuts with $40.4 million, pushes 'Hobbit' out of the top spot

Moviegoers were “Taken” again at the box office by Liam Neeson, as his “Taken 3” opened to an estimated $40.4 million in the U.S. and Canada this weekend and pushed the third installment of the “Hobbit” out of first place.

"Selma," meanwhile, propelled by awards buzz and positive word of mouth including promotion from co-star and producer Oprah Winfrey, leaped to second place with $11.2 million following its nationwide expansion.

"Taken 3," which cost about $48 million to make, was financed by French writer-producer Luc Besson's EuropaCorp and distributed by 20th Century Fox. Neeson reprises his role as former covert operative Bryan Mills, who has to evade law enforcement officials and protect his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) after being framed for murdering his ex-wife.

The franchise, now in perhaps its final installment, has been fruitful at the box office, in large part because of Neeson's appeal as a vigilante.

“Our expectations were set quite a bit lower than this. This is a phenomenal result,” Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox’s head of domestic distribution, said in a statement. “It’s a testament to the enduring popularity of the character Bryan Mills. That is coupled with the fact that this is the first pure entertainment popcorn movie that’s been released in quite some time.”

An estimated 64% of moviegoers were 25 or older, and 54% were male. The film earned a B-plus rating from audience polling firm CinemaScore but just a 12% positive rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

By comparison, "Taken 2" opened to $50 million in October 2012. That was double what the original "Taken" made in 2009, when its $24.7-million start surprised the industry on the historically slow Super Bowl weekend. The franchise has grossed more than $600 million worldwide on combined budgets of $70 million.

"Selma" follows the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in 1965 as he organizes and leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

The Paramount Pictures-distributed film, which cost about $20 million to make, has pulled in $13.5 million since its limited release on Christmas Day.

“It’s a really incredible movie because it’s playing so well in so many diverse places and has all of these organic grass-roots energy around it,” said Megan Colligan, president of domestic marketing and distribution. “It’s big cities, it’s small cities -- it’s touching people all over.”

Colligan said one passionate fan in Louisiana reached out to Paramount asking if she could screen “Selma” at the local gym because there was no theater within 50 miles of town.

An estimated 43% of "Selma" moviegoers nationwide were African American, and 40% were white. Sixty-one percent were female.

“The historical drama is a tough nut to crack to make it entertaining and inspiring and I think [director] Ava DuVernay figured out how to do that,” Colligan said.

The film earned an A-plus on CinemaScore and a 98% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It nabbed four Golden Globes nominations and is considered a major Oscar contender.

Holiday holdover “Into the Woods” rounded out the top three and crossed the $100-million mark at the domestic box office. It added about $9.8 million this weekend, raising its total domestic haul to $105.3 million.

Directed by Rob Marshall, Disney's musical drama is a modern twist on several fairy tales and stars Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp.

The film has received generally good reviews from critics and a B grade on CinemaScore. It also scored three Globes nominations, including best motion picture, comedy or drama.

New Line and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” fell to fourth after holding the top spot for three weeks in a row. Director Peter Jackson's film, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, added $9.4 million over the weekend. Its domestic haul to date is about $236.5 million.

In fifth place, Universal Pictures’ “Unbroken” also crossed the $100-million mark. The Angelina Jolie-directed film added about $8.4 million, raising its total to $101.6 million.

The drama, which cost about $65 million to make, is based on Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 nonfiction bestseller about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned war hero. Though it has received mixed reviews from critics, audiences gave it an A-minus grade on CinemaScore.

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