Marking the first mega-budget blockbuster in the marketplace since Christmas, Buena Vista's $75m space epic Mission To Mars opened with a mighty $23.1m despite uniformly negative reviews across North America. Directed by Brian DePalma, the film, which is the story of a rescue mission to the red planet, beat a rival Mars project to the screen - Warner Bros/Village Roadshow Pictures' Red Planet will now open in November. It was launched on 3,054 screens for a strong screen average of $7,564.

Starring Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle and Gary Sinise, the movie scored the third highest March opening ever after Liar Liar ($31m in 1997) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($25m in 1990). Disney sold off certain European rights to the film to Spyglass Entertainment which will release it through its territorial partners; Spyglass also sold the film to C+P in France.

Far behind at number two with $6.7m was Artisan Entertainment's The Ninth Gate, the satanic chiller directed by Roman Polanski which opened in France last year. Again reviewers were unkind.

The Whole Nine Yards - the box office champ for the last three weeks - tumbled to number four with a $5.4m take, beaten by Warner's family picture My Dog Skip which, driven by good word of mouth, remained at three with $6m. Last week, My Dog Skip producers Alcon Entertainment sealed a long-term worldwide distribution deal with Warner Bros for future pictures.

Meanwhile Oscar favourites American Beauty and The Cider House Rules remained buoyant, taking $3.7m and $3.6m respectively. American Beauty, which last week passed the $100m barrier internationally, will do the same domestically by next weekend.

Next weekend Mission To Mars will get some serious competition from Universal's Julia Roberts-starrer Erin Brockovich which is enjoying some of the best advance word-of-mouth and initial reviews of the year. Brockovich was sneak previewed on 797 US screens on Saturday night (March 11).


Film (Distributor)/International distribution/Estimated weekend gross/Estimated total to date

1 (-) Mission To Mars (Buena Vista) BVI/Spyglass $23.1m --
2 (-) The Ninth Gate (Artisan) Summit $6.7m --
3 (3) My Dog Skip (Warner Bros) Warner Bros $6m $14.1m
4 (1) The Whole Nine Yards (Warner Bros) Franchise Pictures $5.4m $45.8m
5 (9) American Beauty (DreamWorks) UIP $3.7m $98m
6 (10) The Cider House Rules (Miramax) Miramax International $3.6m $42m
7 (4) Drowing Mona (Destination) Capitol Films $3.5m $10.8m
8 (2) The Next Best Thing (Paramount) Lakeshore International $3.4m $10.6m
9 tied (5) Pitch Black (USA Films) Universal Pictures International $3.1m $34.4m
9 tied (6) Snow Day (Paramount) UIP $3.1m $52.9m