King Kongclambered to the top of the Empire State Building despite persistent gunfire ina much-anticipated domestic launch that provided few fireworks but promisedplenty to come.

Released through Universal,Peter Jackson's three-hour epic grossed an estimated $50.1m over three days and$66.2m over five. It averaged $14,054 over three days in 3,568 theatres.

Buena Vista/Walden Media's The Chronicles of Narnia fell one place to second in its secondweekend on $31.2m for $112.5m, while Fox's family comedy The Family Stone starring Sarah Jessica Parker and DianeKeaton opened to mixed reviews in third on $12.7m for a $5,160 average from2,466 theatres.

Kong'sdebut fuelled a solid weekend session that saw the top 12 titles generate$121.2m as box office climbed 22% against the same period last year.

Storming into North Americantheatres amid a fanfare of hype and tasked with resurrecting this year'ssomewhat anaemic box office, Jackson's picture had its work cut out.

The result may have lacked the punch of Kong's headline-grabbing $80m+ internationallaunch but bodes well for a long picture without an in-built fanbase that wasreleased during a non-holiday weekend.

Universal executives stressed the generally excellent reviews andstrong word of mouth, as evidenced by a remarkable 40% leap from Friday toSaturday in which box office vaulted from $14.5m to $20.3m.

Turning to the inevitable comparisons with Jackson's Lord OfThe Rings, Kong acquitted itself well overall.

The Fellowship Of The Ring took $47.2m in its first weekend in December 2001 andgrossed $14.1m and $17m respectively on its first Friday and Saturday, howeverits five-day $75.1m opening was ahead of Kong's $66.2m.

"This picture is demonstratingremarkable growth day-to-day, as evidenced by the astonishing leap from Fridayto Saturday," Universal's vice chairman Marc Shmuger said. "It's creating itsown unique pattern.

"It's not Lord Of The Rings: it doesn't come with millions of fans, but the quality andplayability are fuelling great word of mouth.

"The interesting thing is learning how this kind of movieperforms. If we continue to build on this we will power through the holidayseason."

Shmuger added that only one other picture, 2004's The PassionOf The Christ, produceda 40% climb from Friday to Saturday in its opening weekend, while the domesticbox office champion Titanic jumped 23% from Friday to Saturday when it launched in December1997.

In their fifth weekends, Warner Bros' Harry Potter And TheGoblet Of Fire rankedfourth on $252.6m and Fox's Walk The Line ranked sixth on $82.5m.

Focus Features' BrokebackMountain showed early benefits from itsseven Golden Globe nominations by climbing seven places to eighth on $3.3mafter two weekends. It is playing on just 69 screens.

Next weekend's wide releases are Fox's family sequel Cheaper ByThe Dozen 2 starringSteve Martin and Bonnie Hunt; Sony's comedy Fun With Dick And Jane starring Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni;Warner Bros' comedy Rumor Has It starring Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Costner; and the wideexpansion of Sony's Memoirs of A Geisha.

Estimated Top Ten North America Dec 16-18 2005

Film (Distributor)/International distribution/Estimated weekendgross/Estimated total to date

1 (-) King Kong (Universal) UIP $50.1m $66.2m

2 (1) The Chronicles Of Narnia (Buena Vista/Walden Media) BVI $31.2m$112.5m

3 (-) The Family Stone (Fox) Fox Int'l $12.7m -

4 (3) Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (Warner Bros) WBPI $5.9m $252.6m

5(2) Syriana (Warner Bros) WBPI$5.5m $22.3m

6 (4) Walk The Line (Fox) Fox Int'l $3.6m $82.5m

7 (5) Yours, Mine And Ours (Paramount) SPRI $3.4m $45.1m

8 (15) Brokeback Mountain (Focus) Focus Features $2.4m $3.3m

9 (7) Just Friends (New Line) Inferno Distribution $1.9m $29.4m

10 (6) Aeon Flux(Paramount) UIP $1.7m $23.1m