In a major upset, the new kiddie superhero action comedy "Kick-Ass" failed to take the top spot at the North American box office, narrowly losing the race to "How to Train Your Dragon," according to studio estimates issued Sunday.
"Dragon," a cartoon that also opened disappointingly four weekends ago but has held on strongly, earned $20 million for the three days beginning Friday. "Kick-Ass" followed with $19.8 million.
Another new release, the Chris Rock comedy "Death at a Funeral," came in at No. 4 with a solid $17 million, just behind "Date Night" with $17.3 million.
Rankings could change when final data are released on Monday
The previous weekend, 20th Century Fox'scomedy "Date Night" led the Warner Bros. action tale "Clash of the Titans" by about the same amount based on Sunday estimates. But "Clash of the Titans" came out on top by $1.4 million when final numbers were reported Monday, with "Date Night" pulling in nearly $2 million less than 20th Century Fox had estimated a day earlier.
"I've never seen two weeks in a row like this where the top movies could easily flip-flop," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com.
Weekend projections include fairly hard figures for Friday and Saturday, but studios have to estimate how much a movie will take in on Sunday. Final figures Monday can rise or fall once precise revenues for Sunday are calculated.
Executives for both DreamWorks Animation and Lionsgate said they were tracking their own movies ahead of the competition.
"Our information is indicating that we are at No. 1," said Anne Globe, head of marketing for DreamWorks Animation, whose "How to Train Your Dragon" debuted in first place in late March and slipped to No. 3 the next two weekends before climbing the chart again.
Lionsgate head of distribution David Spitz said he had tracked "Kick-Ass" in first place over "How to Train Your Dragon."
"I don't see them grossing $20 million, but I've been wrong before. I can promise you 24 hours from now, we will know who's right and who's wrong," Spitz said. "It would have been neat to say, 'Hey, we're the clear-cut No. 1."'
Other studios were divided on which film led, some giving the weekend to "How to Train Your Dragon," others to "Kick-Ass."
Finishing first at the box office is a valuable marketing tool, with the winning studio able to declare its movie No. 1 in advertisements through the following weekend.
"Kick-Ass" features Aaron Johnson as a teen comic-book geek who becomes a self-proclaimed superhero, eventually teaming up with a vigilante dad (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz).
The movie had a solid though unremarkable debut, yet box-office analysts expected "Kick-Ass" to open with bigger numbers. It received generally good reviews, but the R-rated movie's hardcore violence and language -- much of it revolving around Moretz's character -- was a drawback for some viewers.
While box-office photo finishes are unusual, "How to Train Your Dragon" also was a rarity as a holdover competing for the No. 1 spot. The movie about a Viking teen and his dragon pal has held on strongly week after week as the main family flick at theaters, raising its total to $158.6 million.
The No. 3 spot also was close, with "Date Night" at $17.3 million and Sony's comedy "Death at a Funeral" debuting just behind at $17 million.
"Date Night," starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, raised its 10-day total to $49.2 million. "Death at a Funeral" features Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan in a romp about an extended family gathering to bury its patriarch.
Even closer was the No. 8 spot, with just $5,000 separating the estimates for MGM's "Hot Tub Time Machine" ($3.545 million) and Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" ($3.54 million).
In narrower release, Roadside Attractions' satire "The Joneses" debuted with $554,489 in 193 theaters, for a weak average of $2,873 a cinema. That compared with an average of $6,444 in 3,065 theaters for "Kick-Ass."
"The Joneses" stars David Duchovny and Demi Moore as heads of a fake family sent out to hawk merchandise to their new neighbors in an upscale community.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "How to Train Your Dragon," $20 million.
2. "Kick-Ass," $19.75 million.
3. "Date Night," $17.3 million.
4. "Death at a Funeral," $17 million.
5. "Clash of the Titans," $15.8 million.
6. "The Last Song," $5.8 million.
7. "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too?", $4.2 million.
8. "Hot Tub Time Machine," $3.55 million.
9. "Alice in Wonderland," $3.54 million.
10. "The Bounty Hunter," $3.2 million.