It was a sensational weekend for Hannibal Lecter at the North American box office. The long-awaited sequel to 1991 classic The Silence Of The Lambs mesmerised the country with an estimated $58m opening weekend gross, giving director Ridley Scott another megahit after last year's Gladiator and MGM, which has domestic rights, its biggest opening ever and its first blockbuster since The World Is Not Enough in Nov 1999.

It's the third biggest opening in film history after The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 and Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace in 1999, validating cynics who warned that it did not justify it's massive $80m budget. Playing at 3,230 theatres, its average was $17,800 per theatre. It is the highest R-rated opening and the highest non-summer opening in history.

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Hannibal is distributed in international territories by Universal Pictures through UIP. The financing deal is a single-pot arrangement whereby all profits from domestic and international go into a "single pot" and are shared equally.

Reviews for the film were decidedly mixed but most agreed that it contained the right ingredients for box office success despite its R rating, pledges from MGM that it was vigilant about not marketing the film to children and guarantees from cinema-owners that children would not be admitted to the film. Some gory scenes - especially the final dinner party scene - have been heavily talked about in the press as being unsuitable for children.

Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore star as Lecter and Clarice Starling, with a supporting cast including Gary Oldman, Giancarlo Giannini, Ray Liotta, Francesca Neri and Enrico LoVerso.

The only other opener was Columbia Pictures' teen comedy Saving Silverman, which took a modest $7.4m at 2,467 theatres (an average of $3,000 per theatre). The film was produced by Columbia and Warner-based Village Roadshow Pictures and stars Jason Biggs, Amanda Peet, Jack Black and Steve Zahn. Dennis Dugan (Big Daddy) directed.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Classics' Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon grossed $5.12m for the fourth slot in North America bringing its gross to an astonishing $60.1m. The film this week overtook Life Is Beautiful's record take of $57.6m as the highest grossing foreign language film in the domestic market. With Oscar nominations announced on Tuesday morning, it could very well edge towards $100m, a previously unthinkable milestone.

Thanks to Hannibal, box office was up some 44% from the same weekend last year, continuing an upward swing which already points at a bigger year than 2000.

Film (Distributor)/International distribution/Estimated weekend gross/Estimated total to date
1 (-) Hannibal (MGM) Universal/UIP $58m --
2 (1) The Wedding Planner (Columbia) Intermedia $7.8m $38m
3 (-) Saving Silverman (Columbia) Columbia TriStar $7.4m --
4 (5) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Sony Classics) Good Machine International $5.12m $60.1m
5 (3) Cast Away (20th Century Fox) DreamWorks $5m $209.7m
6 (4) Save The Last Dance (Paramount) UIP $4.8m $74.5m
7 (6) Traffic (USA Films) IEG $4.4m $71m
8 (2) Valentine (Warner Bros) Warner Bros $3.8m $15.8m
9 (10) Chocolat (Miramax) Miramax International $3.1m $26.6m
10 (11) O Brother Where Art Thou (Buena Vista) Universal/UPI $3m $20.8m