LOS ANGELES - The animated comedy "Wreck-It Ralph" and Denzel Washington drama "Flight" both took off with strong openings this weekend, eliminating fears in Hollywood that moviegoing on the East Coast would be depressed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
"Wreck-It Ralph" opened to a healthy $49.1 million, according to an estimate from distributor Walt Disney Studios, while "Flight" started off with $25 million, strong for a serious movie about alcoholism.
Martial arts film "The Man With the Iron Fists," directed by hip-hop star RZA, opened to a modest $8.2 million, in line with Universal Pictures' expectations for the low-budget production.
About 50 theaters were still closed by Sunday, most on Long Island and in New Jersey. But studios found that theaters near ones that were closed performed better than expected, indicating that moviegoers drove farther if they wanted to see one of this weekend's big-screen offerings.
Overall receipts were up 21 percent from the same weekend a year ago.
"People were finding ways to get to theaters," said Dave Hollis, executive vice president of distribution at Disney. "Whether it was cabin fever or a desire to briefly get away from real circumstances, people wanted to see movies, which was a great thing."
The opening of "Wreck-It," about a video game villain looking for redemption in an arcade, was virtually identical to the first weekend of 2010's Disney Animation Studios release "Tangled." ("Tangled" opened the day before Thanksgiving, however, and grossed $68.7 million over five days.)
With those two strong performers, there's evidence that Burbank, Calif.-based Disney Animation Studios is enjoying a comeback after years of toiling in the shadows of its corporate sibling Pixar Animation Studios, as well as competitors such as DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky Studios.
"This is a real sign that Disney Animation (Studios) is as competitive as any other house, including our own Pixar," said Hollis.
Audiences gave the picture an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore, indicating it should play very well in the weeks to come. That's necessary for the costly animated movie to turn into a hit for Disney.
"Wreck-It Ralph" matinees on Friday were particularly strong due to some schools being closed, Hollis noted.
Ticket sales were strong even at late-night shows, he added, a sign that adults with a fondness for classic game characters who appear in the movie, like "Street Fighter's" Zangief and Pac-Man ghost Clyde, turned out even if they don't have kids. But 68 percent of ticket sales were to families, according to exit polls.
"Flight," meanwhile, drew an overwhelmingly adult audience, with 89 percent of ticket buyers over 25. Drawn by positive reviews, Washington and director Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action drama after more than a decade in motion-capture animation, they gave it an average CinemaScore of A-minus.
The opening was slightly better than that of the recent hit "Argo," another drama that appeals to adults.
Paramount opened "Flight" at only 1,884 theaters, compared with 3,752 for "Wreck-It Ralph," and hopes to expand that number in two weeks against the debut of the teen-targeted "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2."
"We were pretty tight in our release strategy, which gives us the ability to expand in the coming weeks, play strong into Thanksgiving and hopefully carry into December," said Megan Colligan, president of domestic marketing and distribution.
Paramount Pictures spent only $31 million to make "Flight," putting it on a clear route to profitability.
Moviegoers did not seem as pleased with "The Man With the Iron Fists," as the mostly male audience who turned out gave it a weak CinemaScore of just C-plus. Still, Universal spent only $15 million to make the movie, which carried a "Quentin Tarantino presents" tag, and executives at the studio declared themselves satisfied with the opening.
Among returning films, "Argo" enjoyed another impressive hold, with ticket sales down only 15 percent on the Ben Affleck-directed historical drama's fourth weekend to $10.3 million. Its total domestic gross is now $75.9 million, with a total of more than $100 million now very likely.
The Liam Neeson thriller "Taken 2" also experienced a very modest drop of only 22 percent. Its domestic box-office total after five weeks is a strong $125.7 million. 2009's original "Taken" ultimately collected $145 million in the U.S. and Canada, a mark the sequel is now virtually certain to surpass.
The low-budget comedy "Pitch Perfect," about college a cappella singers, fell only 23 percent on its sixth weekend and is now up to a healthy $55.6 million.