The US economy may be in dire straits but Hollywood remains recession-proof as the North American box office climbed for the fourth consecutive weekend against the same period last year after Fox's videogame adaptation Max Payne starring Mark Wahlberg opened top on an estimated $18m.

Fox Searchlight's Civil Rights era drama The Secret Life Of Bees parlayed its recent Toronto world premiere and a number of decent reviews into a third place launch on $11.1m, just ahead of Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic W from Lionsgate/QED International on $10.6m.

The Secret Life Of Bees boasts a redoubtable female ensemble of Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Jennifer Hudson and finished a whisker behind Buena Vista's erstwhile champion Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which ranked second on $11.2m for $69.1m in its third weekend. Final tallies will be announced on Monday [October 20].

W persuaded sufficient numbers of North American political junkies to pull themselves away from round-the-clock TV election coverage and YouTube highlights to score a solid debut.

The drama earned mixed reviews and stars Josh Brolin as the beleaguered US President alongside a venerable ensemble that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn.

Paramount-DreamWorks' thriller Eagle Eye fell one place to fifth in its fourth weekend on a $7.3m haul that raised the running total to $81.3m. Summit's teen comedy Sex Drive launched in ninth place on $3.6m. Universal's sports drama The Express crashed out of the top 10 in its second weekend to rank 12th on $8.3m.

Overall the top 12 films combined for $86.4m, roughly 10% higher than the same weekend last year.

Magnolia Pictures' What Just Happened' starring Robert De Niro as a frazzled film producer - which parent company 2929 decided to release through its wholly-owned Magnolia Pictures label after the Hollywood caper failed to entice buyers at Sundance - opened in 25th place on $216,000 from 36 theatres.

Elsewhere in the limited arena, Samuel Goldwyn Film's Christian tale Fireproof fell one place to 11th in its fourth weekend on $2.7m from 905 theatres for a commendable $20.7m. Paramount Vantage reported that DreamWorks' period drama The Duchess starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes added $2.2m from 1,207 theatres for $9.2m and ranks 13th after five weekends.

SPC's Rachel Getting Married climbed six places to 19th in its third weekend on approximately $722,000 from 69 theatres for a solid $1.8m. Lionsgate's documentary Religulous is doing well in 540 theatres and ranks 16th on $9.1m after three weekends.

Next weekend's wide releases are: Buena Vista's High School Musical 3:Senior Year starring Zac Efron; Buena Vista's annual re-release of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas 3D in time for the Halloween crowd; Lionsgate's horror sequel Saw V with Tobin Bell and Scott Patterson; and Warner Bros' police drama Pride And Glory starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell.

Estimated Top 10 North America Oct 17-19, 2008
Film (Dist)/Int'l dist/Est wkd gross/Est total to date

1 (-) Max Payne (Fox) Fox Int'l $18m -
2 (1) Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Buena Vista) WDSMPI $11.2m $69.1m
3 (-) The Secret Life Of Bees (Fox Searchlight) Fox Int'l $11.1m -
4 (-) W (Lionsgate) QED Int'l $10.6m -
5 (4) Eagle Eye (DreamWorks-Paramount) PPI $7.3m $81.3m
6 (3) Body Of Lies (Warner Bros) WBPI $6.9m $24.5m
7 (2) Quarantine (Screen Gems) SPRI/various $6.3m $24.7m
8 (5) Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist (Sony) SPRI $3.9m $26.7m
9 (-) Sex Drive (Summit) Summit Int'l $3.6m -
10 (7) Nights In Rodanthe (Warner Bros) WBPI/Village Roadshow $2.7m $36.9m