The mighty housemaids of 'The Help' were finally felled by a microscopic bug. Steven Soderbergh's new all-too-plausible pandemic thriller 'Contagion' ended the three-week reign of 'The Help,' debuting at No. 1 and earning an estimated $23.1 million. The all-star disaster movie beat three other new wide releases to claim the top spot at the box office.


With predictions running in the $22 to $24 million range, 'Contagion' did about as well as expected. Helping the film coast to an easy victory were such elements as a star-studded cast, a director with a solid track record, good reviews, a wide release (on 3,222 screens), strong adult appeal (81 percent of the audience was over 25, according to studio polling) - and weak competition.

'Contagion' took a lot of grown-ups away from 'The Help,' which suffered a 41 percent decline this weekend to an estimated $8.7 million. That's a steeper fall than expected, as pundits had predicted a take of just over $10 million. Nonetheless, it was good enough for second place and a five-week total of $137.1 million.


The strongest of 'Contagion's' fellow newcomers was 'Warrior,' which opened in third place with an estimated $5.6 million. With its double-underdog plot, decent reviews, comparisons to such brawler-with-a-heart favorites as 'Rocky' and 'The Fighter' and strong word-of-mouth, the mixed martial arts saga had been expected to go toe-to-toe with 'The Help' at around $10 million. But it opened on only 1,869 screens, and for all their rising-star buzz, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are not box office draws yet.

Rounding out the top five were holdovers 'The Debt' and 'Colombiana.' In fourth place, 'The Debt,' underperformed slightly, slipping 51 percent in its second weekend to an estimated $4.9 million, for a two-week total of $22.0 million. The spy drama had been expected to pull around $6 million this weekend, but its adult appeal meant that, like 'The Help,' it was hit hard by 'Contagion.' Revenge thriller 'Colombiana,' however, did about as well as expected, losing 46 percent of last weekend's business and earning an estimated $4.0 million, for a three-week total of $29.8 million.

'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star'This weekend's other two wide releases barely registered; neither cracked the top 10. 'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star,' the latest juvenile-but-raunchy comedy from Adam Sandler's assembly line, opened on 1,500 screens but pulled in just an estimated $1.4 million, debuting at No. 15. Not that anyone was expecting much, but predictions that the movie would earn about $3 million proved overly generous. Weak reviews, middling promotion, and the untested star power of rising comic and Sandler pal Nick Swardson in the lead didn't help.

Faring even worse was 'Creature,' which enjoyed an inexplicably wide opening on 1,507 screens. The horror film, a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the days when drive-in-movie monsters were just guys in rubber suits, 'Creature' opened in 26th place and scored an abysmal $331,000, according to estimates, or about $220 per screen (that's about one or two ticketbuyers per screening), making it the fifth-worst wide release opening ever.

Just for comparison's sake, 'Laugh at My Pain,' Kevin Hart's chronicle of his hugely successful recent comedy tour, opened on just 97 screens but pulled in an estimated $2.0 million, opening in 13th place. That's a huge $20,619 per screen, nearly three times the per-screen average of 'Contagion.'

All told, this was the weakest weekend of 2011 so far, with just $82 million in total receipts.

'Contagion' - Trailer No. 1

The full top 10:
1. 'Contagion,' $23.1 million (3,222 screens), new release
2. 'The Help,' $8.7 million (2,935), $137.1 million total
3. 'Warrior,' $5.6 million (1,869), new release
4. 'The Debt,' $4.9 million (1,874), $22.0 million
5. 'Colombiana,' $4.0 million (2,354), $29.8 million
6. 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' $4.9 million (2,887), $167.8 million
7. 'Shark Night 3D,' $3.5 million (2,848), $14.8 million
8. 'Apollo 18,' $2.9 million (3,330), $15.0 million
9. 'Our Idiot Brother,' $2.8 million (2,396), $21.4 million
10. 'Spy Kids: All the Time in the World,' $2.5 million (2,544), $34.2 million

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.

Photo credits: Lionsgate ('Warrior')