Thesecond instalment of New Line's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, TheTwo Towers, stormed to the top of the North American box office over thethree-day weekend (Dec 20-22) with an estimated $61.5m.

Theepic fantasy sequel opened on Wednesday (Dec 18) with $26m and has claimed apowerful estimated $101.5m in its first five days, 35% up on The FellowshipOf The Rings' five-day launch ($66.1m).

Withan estimated $85m also taken from the 26 international countries that havereceived The Two Towers since Wednesday, New Line expects the sequel tobetter Fellowship's $860m worldwide total by some 20%-25%. If achievedthis would make The Two Towers only the second film ever to pass $1bnworldwide after 1997's Titanic ($1.8bn).

"Wewant to be the number two film worldwide", said Rolf Mittweg, New Line's headof worldwide marketing and distribution. "We think we're on track to do that."

TheTwo Towersplayed on 6,633 prints at 3,622 theaters in North America for a three-dayscreen average of $9,272 and a venue average of $16,980. Its five-day averageswere $15,302 (screen) and $28,023 (venue). Fellowship, which played at3,359 venues from Dec 19, 2001, recorded a five-day venue average of $19,683and a three-day of $14,051.

Oneof the most highly anticipated releases of the year, The Two Towersgarnered strong support from critics and is expected to continue to pull inmassive audiences throughout the holiday season. It received two Golden Globenominations last week for best picture (drama) and for director (PeterJackson).

Thefilm once again stars Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensenand Christopher Lee and this time adds Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto and CGcharacter Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) to the ensemble.

Thestory splits three ways in this instalment following Frodo's (Wood) continuingjourney to destroy the "ring of power"; the troubles of King Theoden (Hill);and the adventures of hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).

Romanticcomedies old and new fought it out for second and third with Warner Bros/CastleRock's Two Weeks Notice coming out ahead with $14.4m. The SandraBullock/Hugh Grant title received mixed reviews, playing at 2,755 locations fora theater average of $5,229.

Behindit in third was last week's leader Maid In Manhattan. Sony Pictures'Jennifer Lopez comedy took $11m in its second weekend.

Anotherepic, Martin Scorsese's long awaited Gangs Of New York, opened fourthfor Miramax with $9.1m. Playing at 1,504 venues the film, which stars LeonardoDiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz, scored an average of $6,064 persite. It will expand to approximately 2,150 theaters from Christmas.

Paramountsuffered a disappointing weekend, which saw its animated title The WildThornberrys land in sixth with $6.1m and holdover Star Trek: Nemesisnosedive 76% from its opening weekend last week to take $4.4m for ninthposition.

Despitelargely positive reviews Nickelodeon's Wild Thornberrys proved unable torepeat the magic of the companies Rugrats franchise, with which it teamsnext year for Rugrats Meet The Wild Thornberrys. The Rugrats Movieopened in 1998 for a weekend gross of $27.3m, while 2000's Rugrats In Parismanaged $22.7m. Both titles were also distributed by Paramount.

Inthe limited arena this week Buena Vista launched Spike Lee's 25thHour on Thursday for an estimated four-day take of $131,778 (and three-dayweekend of $109,811) from just five locations in New York and L.A. Paramount'swell received Narc, starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta, claimed$66,000 from six venues.

MeanwhileFox Searchlight launched Denzel Washington's directorial debut, AntwoneFisher, for $217,258 from 15 theaters over the weekend, an average of$14,484 per venue. Also launched on Thursday it's four-day gross was $225,863.

Top10 December 20-22

Film(Distributor) Three-day gross Total gross
1 The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (New Line) $61.5m $101.5m
2 Two Weeks Notice (Warner Bros) $14.4m -
3 Maid In Manhattan (Sony Pictures) $11m $35.5m
4 Gangs Of New York (Miramax) $9.1m -
5 Drumline (20th Fox) $7.6m $22.8m
6 The Wild Thornberrys Movie (Paramount) $6.1m -
7 The Hot Chick (Buena Vista) $4.5m $13.7m
8 Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (Warner Bros) $4.46m $228.9m
9 Star Trek: Nemesis (Paramount) $4.4m $26.5m
10 Die Another Day (MGM) $4m $138.5m