(EW.com) -- It was a great weekend to be a director named Paul Anderson.
Not only did Paul W.S. Anderson's "Resident Evil: Retribution" become his fourth straight "Resident Evil" film to debut atop the chart; Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "The Master" had one of the best opening weekends of all time in limited release.
In first place, "Resident Evil: Retribution," the fifth entry in the stalwart horror/action franchise, earned $21.1 million — 21 percent less than 2010′s "Resident Evil: Afterlife," which began with $26.7 million. This is the first time that a "Resident Evil" movie has earned less than its predecessor. The original Resident Evil earned $17.7 million in 2002. "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" grossed $23.0 million in 2004. "Resident Evil: Extinction" scored $23.7 million in 2007. Notably, "Retribution," which is being distributed in 3-D and IMAX, also sold the fewest tickets of any of the "Resident Evil" films in its opening weekend.
Sony, who is distributing the $65 million Milla Jovovich (Paul W.S. Anderson's wife) vehicle under its Screen Gems division, isn't worried, though. "The Resident Evil" franchise's international prospects have grown substantially over the last decade, and with a $50 million international start this weekend, "Retribution" has a good shot at finishing ahead of Afterlife's $296 million worldwide cume. Audiences issued the film a "C+" CinemaScore grade
Disney's 3-D re-release "Finding Nemo" made a more modest splash in second place with $17.5 million. Though the family film, which was converted into 3-D for less than $5 million, was expected to top the chart, Nemo was unable to match the numbers of Disney's recent 3-D re-releases "The Lion King," which debuted with $30.2 million in September 2011, or even Beauty and the Beast, which began with $17.8 million earlier this year.
Ever since "The Lion King's" successful 3-D run, which added $94.2 million to its total, studios have been eager to capitalize on the low-cost high-return 3-D re-release strategy. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace raced to $43.5 million earlier this year. Titanic garnered $57.9 million domestically — and $343 million worldwide. Next up, Disney will re-release "Monsters, Inc." (out Dec. 19), and next year will bring 3-D re-releases of two more Star Wars films, as well as Jurassic Park and The Little Mermaid — and those are just the films we've already heard about. Yet Finding Nemo's softer-than-expected weekend reveals that audiences may be losing interest in the gimmick rather quickly.
When all is said and done, "Finding Nemo" will prove a financial boon for Disney, even if it finishes in the same range as "Beauty and the Beast 3-D," which took in $47.6 million. Conversion costs were minimal, and for the "Mouse House," merchandising is far more lucrative than theatrical earnings. "Nemo's" solid box office run will keep the film's characters (and appeal) alive as audiences wait for the recently announced Finding Nemo 2.
Lionsgate's $14 million demonic effort "The Possession" grossed $5.8 million in its third weekend, a drop of just 38 percent. The "Based on a True Story" film, which stars Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, has held up much better than equivalent horror titles and has now earned $41.2 million total.
Two other holdovers rounded out the Top 5. In fourth, Warner Bros/' bootlegging crime drama Lawless fell 30 percent to $4.2 million, lifting its total to $30.1 million after three weeks. In fifth, Focus Features' ParaNorman earned another $3.0 million, giving the creepy kid flick $49.3 million after a full month in theaters.
1. Resident Evil: Retribution -- $21.1 million
2. Finding Nemo -- $17.5 million
3. The Possession -- $5.8 million
4. Lawless -- $4.2 million
5. ParaNorman -- $3.0 million
Further down the chart, two movies made impressive debuts in limited release. Arbitrage, the buzzy financial thriller starring Richard Gere, grossed $2.1 million from 197 theaters, yielding a terrific per theater average of $10,508. The film opened on VOD this weekend as well.
CLICK HERE to Try 2 RISK FREE issues of Entertainment Weekly
© 2011 Entertainment Weekly and Time Inc. All rights reserved.