As expected Watchmen dominated the North American charts at the weekend with an estimated $55.7m launch through Warner Bros that fell short of expectations but nonetheless secured with ease the biggest weekend debut of the year-to-date.

The haul for the R-rated movie included a $5.5m tally from 124 IMAX theatres that served a reminder if any were needed of the large screen format's established role as a major platform for tentpole releases. Overseas the picture enjoyed a $27.5m international launch in 45 territories through Paramount Pictures International, ranking number one in the UK and other key markets.

The latest opening weekend success for Warner Bros and its financing partner Legendary Pictures following their collaboration on The Dark Knight ensured that overall box office stayed 16% ahead of the comparable portion of 2008 on $1.9bn.

While rising ticket prices are a key factor in the inflated running total, it should be noted that admissions have surged by 14% as consumers continue to support cinema-going as an affordable entertainment option during hard times.

Director Zack Snyder did not beat the March opening record of $70.9m set by his earlier R-rated graphic novel adaptation 300 in 2007, however Warner Bros distribution chief Dan Fellman hailed an 'outstanding' launch, given that the 161-minute running time effectively meant theatres were programming one screening a night.

IMAX Filmed Entertainment chairman and president Greg Foster noted this was the company's second biggest launch behind The Dark Knight's $6.3m in 2008 and highlighted the $44,500 per-screen average on IMAX screens.

'This shows the scalability of out business as we expand our digital network,' Foster said. 'It also demonstrates that fanboys have decided that IMAX is the theatre of choice when these movies come out.'

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode star in Watchmen, the film they said could never be made from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark 1986 graphic novel.

The release marks a triumphant late chapter in a saga that has endured for more than two decades and involved abortive attempts to get the adaptation off the ground from the likes of Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky, among others.

Indeed Fox stands to gain following a legal settlement that recognises an ownership stake and the studio is understood to have received a cash payment that may be as high as $10m and will take what is believed to be an 8.5% cut of gross domestic revenues.

Elsewhere, Tyler Perry's Madea Goes To Jail fell to second place on $8.8m and stands at $76.5m for Lionsgate after three weeks, while Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience tumbled seven places to number nine after a huge 77.7% fall for Disney in its second week and added $2.8m for a $16.8m running total.

EuropaCorp's kidnapping thriller Taken in third place has amassed $118m through Fox after six while Fox Searchlight's Slumdog Millionaire in fourth has grossed $125.4m after 17 weeks.

Next weekend Disney unleashes the family adventure Race To Witch Mountain starring Dwayne Johnson and AnnaSophia Robb. Also in wide release are Fox's comedy Miss March with Molly Stanton and Steven J Wolfe and Universal's horror remake The Last House On The Left with Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter.

Estimated Top 10 North America Mar 6-8, 2009
Film (Dist)/Int'l dist/Est wkd gross/Est total to date

1 (-) Watchmen (Warner Bros) PPI $55.7m -
2 (1) Tyler Perry's Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate) Mandate Int'l $8.8m $76.5m
3 (4) Taken (Fox) EuropaCorp $7.5m $118m
4 (3) Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) Fox Int'l $6.9m $125.4m
5 (6) Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony) SPRI $4.2m $133.6m
6 (5) He's Just Not That Into You (Warner Bros) New Line Int'l $4m $84.6m
7 (7) Coraline (Focus Features) FFI $3.3m $65.7m
8 (9) Confessions Of A Shopaholic (Buena Vista) WDSMPI $3.1m $38.4m
9 (2) Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience (Buena Vista) WDSMPI
$2.8m $16.8m
10 (10) Fired Up! (Sony) SPRI $2.6m $13.4m