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'Monsters University' scares zombies to lead box office

By Ronald Grover and Chris Michaud

(Reuters) - "Monsters University," the prequel to Pixar's 2001 animated blockbuster "Monsters, Inc.," scared up $82 million in weekend ticket sales to easily outdistance the week's other new movie, the big-budget apocalyptic thriller "World War Z," which came in with an impressive haul of $66 million.

"World War Z,", the story of a zombie pandemic starring Brad Pitt, was Pitt's biggest opening weekend ever, easily outpacing the $50.3 million for "Mr. And Mrs. Smith."

Last week's top movie, the Superman reboot "Man of Steel", was third with ticket sales of $41.2 million.

"Monsters University," featuring the voices of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as monsters who flunk out of the college's scare program, continued the tradition of hugely successful films produced by Pixar, a unit of the Walt Disney Co.

It was Pixar's 14th consecutive film to head the box office for the weekend it premiered in theaters, according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com's box office division, easily outpacing industry projections of a $70 million weekend.

"It definitely exceeded our expectations," said Dave Hollis, executive vice president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios. "The first film was so beloved and set such a high bar so we're ecstatic."

Hollis said "Monsters University" was boosted by word of mouth.

"It's turned into a bit of a date night option," he said. "And there haven't been a lot of family options in the marketplace."

Distributed by Paramount Pictures, "World War Z" was delayed from its initially planned December release after the studio decided to reshoot the final third, pushing its budget from $170 million to more than $200 million, according to published reports.

Paramount said the film, which Pitt produced, cost $190 million to produce. Pitt stars as a former U.N. crisis specialist called upon to help defeat zombies who threaten to take over the planet.

The film had been forecast to rack up ticket sales of about $50 million, according to Hollywood.com's box office division, while the studio said it was looking to the high 40s, given the competition from "Monsters" and "Man of Steel."

"I don't think there's a person on the planet who thought this would open at $66 million," said Don Harris, Paramount's president of distribution. "These are pretty heady numbers."

"We're in really good shape" heading into the lucrative peak summer season weeks including the July 4 holiday, Harris said.

"And we certainly broadened the audience," he added, noting the film's 51 percent female-49 percent male audience breakdown, unusual for a big budget summer action film.

"Man of Steel," which stars British actor Henry Cavill as the muscled superhero, has generated domestic ticket sales of $210 million, already more than 2006's "Superman Returns," which starred Brandon Routh and took in just over $200 million.

Directed by Zack Snyder, the current version was distributed by Warner Bros.

"This Is the End," the apocalyptic comedy written by star Seth Rogen and his childhood friend Evan Goldberg, collected $13 million to take fourth place in the United States and Canada.

"Now You See Me," starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg as magicians who evade the police after high-profile robberies, was fifth with ticket sales of $7.9 million, pushing its total domestic take to just under $95 million.

"Despicable Me 2," which opens July 3 in North America, had a strong debut in Australia where Universal opted to open the film early to coincide with winter school holidays. The film took in $4.3 million, added to $2.1 million from paid previews last week.

"Monsters University" was distributed by the Walt Disney Co. Warner Brothers, a unit of Time Warner, distributed "Man of Steel." Viacom's Paramount Pictures unit distributed "World War Z." Sony's film studio distributed "This is the End." "Now You See Me" was distributed by Lions Gate Entertainment.

(Reporting By Ronald Grover and Chris Michaud; Editing by Bill Trott)

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