LOS ANGELES - "Snow White and the Huntsman" easily made it out of the woods at the box office this weekend, far exceeding industry expectations for the film's debut.
The fairy-tale adaptation opened with a better-than-anticipated $56.3 million, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures - about $10 million more than pre-release audience surveys had indicated the film would bring in on its first weekend in release.
That meant that of the two films based on "Snow White" to hit theaters this year, "Huntsman" was the fairest of them all. In March, Relativity Media's bouncier family version "Mirror Mirror," starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins, debuted with a tepid $18 million and collected $62 million by the end of its run.
"Snow White and the Huntsman," featuring "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, has a darker tone than "Mirror Mirror." Universal also spent much more to produce "Snow White" - about $170 million, compared with a $100 million budget for the Relativity film.
"I think that the marketing campaign indeed showed how different this version was" from "Mirror Mirror," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "The campaign got everyone's attention as soon as it was introduced and that helped the movie do much better than the industry thought it would."
The movie's respectable opening is welcome news for Universal, which is coming off the disastrous box-office performance of its $209 million production "Battleship." Behind the Navy action flick, "Snow White" is the most expensive movie the studio is releasing in 2012 and part of a strategy to spend more on films that will appeal to a global audience. Universal is already developing a sequel to "Snow White" that would focus on Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman - and after this weekend's box office receipts, it seems the studio may be justified in moving forward on the project.
Those who saw "Snow White" this weekend gave the film an average grade of B, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Roughly 52 percent of the movie's audience was older than 30, which could bode well for Stewart's career. Before "Snow White," the actress had yet to appear in any major film outside of the massively popular "Twilight" series. With the vampire franchise coming to a close this fall, "Snow White" is the first indication that the 22-year-old has appeal outside of the young female "Twilight" fan base.
Overseas, "Snow White" debuted in 45 foreign countries and sold $39.3 million worth of tickets. It had the strongest debut in the United Kingdom, where the picture grossed $5.5 million, and also did well in Spain and Mexico.
Although the film performed solidly abroad, it didn't do as well as Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," the sci-fi movie that will hit U.S. theaters this weekend. Playing in 15 foreign markets, the 3-D film collected $35 million and was No. 1 in 14 countries. The movie, which stars an ensemble cast including Theron, Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace, sold the most tickets in Russia - $11.1 million. Next weekend, the picture will open in 35 additional international locations, including Australia and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, "Men in Black 3" had a solid second weekend in theaters, with its ticket sales dropping 46 percent to $29.3 million and raising its total to $112.3 million in the U.S. and Canada. But the movie is performing far better overseas, where the third installment in the sci-fi comedy franchise has already raked in over $275 million. The film is doing particularly well in China and Russia where 3-D and special effects are popular.
An even bigger global phenomenon, "The Avengers," continued to do astounding business this weekend, passing the final installment of "Harry Potter" to become the third-highest-grossing film of all time - not adjusting for inflation. With its $1.4 billion worldwide sum, the picture has now only made less than James Cameron's "Avatar" and "Titanic."
Meanwhile, the Weinstein Co.'s garish horror sequel "Piranha 3DD" debuted in 86 cinemas this weekend and grossed a dismal $179,000. Those opening-weekend figures indicate the film won't come near to making the $83 million that "Piranha 3D" grossed worldwide in 2010.