A rush of new movies could not evict "Bringing Down the House" from the top spot at theaters.
The Frankie Muniz teen-spy flick "Agent Cody Banks" opened in second place with $15 million.
The weekend's other new wide release -- "Willard," starring Crispin Glover in a remake of the 1970s horror tale about a social misfit and his ravenous pet rats -- debuted a distant No. 8 with $4 million.
Business fell overall, with the top 12 movies grossing $93.3 million, down 23% from the same weekend a year ago when "Ice Age" had a huge $46.3-million debut, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
"Bringing Down the House," about an uptight white lawyer whose online "girlfriend" turns out to be a black escaped convict seeking help to clear her name, is on track to become a $100-million hit.
"I think this is one of those classic situations where the public is actually moving the needle for us. Voluntary word of mouth, people walking up to friends and saying, 'I saw this really funny movie you've got to see,' " said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney, whose Touchstone Pictures banner released "Bringing Down the House."
About 70% of the audience for "Agent Cody Banks" was 12 and younger, and the start of spring break at many schools gave the movie a boost, said Erik Lomis, head of distribution for MGM, which released the flick.
Ticket sales for "The Hunted" came in on the "low side of what we were looking for," said Wayne Lewellen, head of distribution for Paramount, which released it.
The audience was mostly younger males, he said.
"Bringing Down the House," playing in 2,801 theaters, averaged a healthy $7,997 a cinema. "Agent Cody Banks" averaged $4,452 in 3,369 theaters, "The Hunted" averaged $5,366 in 2,516 cinemas and "Willard" did $2,286 in 1,761 movie houses.
In limited release, the British soccer flick "Bend It Like Beckham" opened with $151,717 in six theaters for a strong $25,286 average.
The movie, a hit in England last year, expands to nationwide release by mid-April, said Steve Gilula, head of distribution for Fox Searchlight.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Preliminary results based on studio projections.
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total (millions) Bringing Down the House $22.4 $61.6
Agent Cody Banks 15 15
The Hunted 13.5 13.5
Tears of the Sun 8.8 30.8
Chicago 7.7 125.5
Old School 6.8 60.9
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days 4.8 93.9
Willard 4 4
Daredevil 3 96
Cradle 2 the Grave 3 31.7
Source: Nielsen EDI, Inc.
Los Angeles Times