"Beauty and the Beast," Walt Disney Co.'s live-action remake of the animated classic, led the weekend box office in its North American debut, setting a record for a March opening.
The film collected $170 million in sales, researcher ComScore Inc. said Sunday in an emailed statement. That easily toppled last weekend's leader, the Warner Bros. feature "Kong: Skull Island," as well as "The Belko Experiment," from horror specialist Blumhouse Productions.
Disney had been forecasting $120 million in weekend ticket sales, then raised the estimate to as much as $150 million on Friday. The company is mining classic animated tales for films with real actors and modern special effects after struggling to invent profitable original stories.
"It is a strategy we believe in," Dave Hollis, executive vice president of distribution at Disney said in a telephone interview. "It's such a gratifying thing to see audiences respond to a film."
The previous record for a March opening is Warner Bros.' "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," which brought in $166 million in its North American debut a year ago, according to Box Office Mojo.
The live-action remakes are one leg of a Disney film strategy that includes animated pictures from Pixar and the company's namesake studio, superhero movies from Marvel Entertainment, and "Star Wars" adventures from Lucasfilm. They delivered box-office records and historically high profits for the company last year.
The studio has already delivered winning remakes of "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Maleficent," and has more than a dozen other live-action adaptations in the pipeline. Online ticket seller Fandango said it sold out more than 1,000 "Beauty and the Beast" showings across the country, the most for a family film.
"Beauty and the Beast" stars Emma Watson as Belle, a bookworm who falls in love with a prince, played by Dan Stevens, who is cursed to live as a beast. The film scored a 71 percent positive rating at Rottentomatoes.com, which compiles critics' ratings.
The film cost about $160 million to make, according to Box Office Mojo, and many millions more to market. BoxOfficePro.com was forecasting $175 million in weekend sales for the picture.
"Kong: Skull Island" took in $28.9 million in its second weekend in theaters to land in second place for Time Warner Inc.'s film division. BoxOfficePro was predicting $27.5 million.
The new take on the classic ape tale stars Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson as adventurers who land on a mysterious island where they encounter Kong. It scored 79 percent on Rottentomatoes.com.
New release "The Belko Experiment" came in seventh, earning $4.1 million, more than the $3.25 million forecast by BoxOfficePro. The movie, distributed by BH Tilt, tells the story of a group of people forced to participate in a game of kill or be killed. It scored 48 percent on Rottentomatoes.com.