"Fifty Shades of Grey" dominated the box office and set Presidents Day weekend records, whipping up an estimated $81.7 million through Sunday.
The film adaptation of E.L. James' erotic novel is on track to pull in an estimated $90.7 million through the Monday holiday in the U.S. and Canada. The studio originally projected a far more modest four-day opening weekend of $60 million.
The Sam Taylor-Johnson directed film, released by Universal Pictures, follows kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his demure love interest Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson).
Universal originally slated the film for last summer but changed the release to Valentine's Day weekend. The scheduling shift paid off: "Fifty Shades" became the highest grossing Presidents Day and Valentine's Day weekend opener. The previous record holder, "Valentine's Day," launched with $56.3 million in February 2010.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" is the second biggest February debut ever, coming in just shy of the $83.9-million mark set by "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004. "Fifty Shades" also scored the fourth biggest R-rated weekend premiere, trailing the $91.8-million record set by "The Matrix Reloaded" in 2003. ("American Sniper" is No. 2, and "The Hangover Part II" is No. 3 on that list.)
"We're all popping Champagne over here," said Nick Carpou, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "We couldn't be happier."
Couples and women flocked to theaters, surveys showed. An estimated 68% of moviegoers were female and 58% were older than 25.
"Our team made the film as accessible to the widest audience we could," Carpou said. The Valentine's Day timing "expanded our patron base tremendously," he said.
With $36.7 million on Valentine's Day, "Fifty Shades" posted the biggest single-day gross ever in February.
Some theaters tried to make the film an event. Cinépolis in Thousand Oaks sold a Valentine's Loveseat Package that included two tickets and a bottle of wine, blanket and dessert to share.
The marketing blitz likely helped attract big turnouts in theaters. Universal crafted billboards and bus advertisements teasing potential moviegoers with the one-word question: "Curious?" On the movie's official website, users can visit Mr. Grey's Seattle apartment, unlocking different areas by clicking on promotional items around the virtual abode.
Fandango, the nation's largest movie ticket company, reported hundreds of sold-out showings for "Fifty Shades of Grey" beginning with the first 8 p.m. screenings on Feb. 12 and running through the weekend.
"With unprecedented pre-sales and buzz on social media after the release of the trailer, we knew it was going to be a hot item," Carpou said. "The level of which was hard to gauge mainly because the pre-sale was so big. It's been just a great thing to watch."
The film received a C-plus from audience polling firm CinemaScore, and critics gave it a meager 26% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But the film roped in big numbers overseas too. It opened at No. 1 in 55 foreign markets where it was released, grossing a studio-estimated $158 million.
Back in the U.S. and Canada, "The Kingsman: The Secret Service" offered up an action alternative for those not pining for romance. The film, released by 20th Century Fox, came in second for the weekend, pulling in $35.6 million.
Based on a comic book, the film follows a street kid (Taron Egerton) after he is recruited into a secret spy organization by Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine also star in the film.
Audiences responded well to the film, giving it an average grade of B-plus from CinemaScore. Critics gave it generally positive reviews.
About 57% of the "Kingsman" audience was male. An estimated 60% of the audience was older than 25.
Chris Aronson, Fox's head of domestic distribution, said the film "gave choice to the marketplace."
"Our feeling all along was that there was an opportunity here," he said, whereas other studios steered away from Valentine's Day weekend.
Paramount Pictures' "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water," which was No. 1 last weekend, again attracted families and teenagers. It dropped 45% in ticket sales but still grossed $30.5 million, raising its total to about $93.7 million.
The war drama "American Sniper," at No. 4, crossed the $300-million mark domestically. The Clint Eastwood film, which is nominated for six Academy Awards, has pulled in about $304.1 million in the U.S. and Canada to date.
"Jupiter Ascending" rounded out the top five with $9.4 million. The Warner Bros. film has made $32.5 million total domestically.
Friday-through-Sunday box office receipts were up 17% from the same time last year. Overall, the box office is up 11.4% year-to-date with $1.45 billion in ticket sales.