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LOS ANGELES — Moviegoers worshipped at the altar of “The Master” at the box office this weekend, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s critical darling dominated art house ticket sales.


The film, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the leader of a Scientology-esque cult, opened this weekend in only five theaters but collected $729,745, according to an estimate from distributor the Weinstein Co. That amounts to a phenomenal per-location average of $145,949 — the best opening for any film in limited release so far this year. Previously, that record was held by Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which averaged $130,749 when it first hit theaters.


The movie began generating steam on the festival circuit over the last month after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, where it took home a handful of top prizes. After receiving largely positive reviews — especially for the performances of Hoffman and co-star Joaquin Phoenix — the movie has been heralded as an early awards contender.


“We moved up the release date and pushed back the DVD release until after the awards shows because we want to re-release the movie in late December to remind voters about it,” said Erik Lomis, Weinstein’s president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment, adding that the film would expand to 135 markets nationwide next weekend.


It was a good weekend for independent film at the box office, as the Richard Gere thriller “Arbitrage” scored the highest debut ever for any movie released in theaters the same day it became available on video-on-demand. Playing in 197 theaters, the movie grossed $2.1 million on the same weekend that it shot to No. 2 on the iTunes movie rental chart.


In wide release, a 3-D version of “Finding Nemo” was expected to rule the multiplex upon its debut, but the animated film sank to the runner-up position this weekend. Instead, “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the fifth installment in the popular Milla Jovovich science-fiction thriller franchise, claimed the No. 1 position.


However, both films missed industry projections. Pre-release audience polling indicated that “Retribution” would take in as much as $27 million during its first weekend in theaters, but the film actually opened with a decent $21.1 million. The re-formatted “Finding Nemo,” meanwhile, was expected to start off with roughly $30 million, but came in with just more than half of that sum: $17.5 million.


Though the latest “Resident Evil” movie was the highest-grossing film at the box office this weekend, its opening is disappointing compared with the previous entries in the series. The 3-D movie had the worst debut of any “Resident Evil” film since the original, which launched with $17.7 million in 2002. The following three films had continued to gross a higher sum on their respective opening weekends, with the most recent installment, “Resident Evil: Afterlife,” beginning with $26.7 million in 2010.


“Afterlife” eventually grossed $60 million domestically, but did its real business overseas, where it sold $236.1 million worth of tickets — about 80 percent of its overall business. It’s likely that “Retribution” will follow the same trajectory, as the $65 million production opened in 65 foreign markets this weekend and grossed $50 million. That’s roughly 28 percent ahead of the $39 million that “Afterlife” made in the same countries in its first weekend abroad.


Japanese audiences flocked to “Retribution,” with the film grossing more in the country than any other location overseas. The movie raked in $10.3 million in Japan and also did well in Russia, where it sold $8.6 million worth of tickets.


Those who saw the film in the U.S. and Canada — a 64 percent male audience — didn’t seem to like it, assigning it an average grade of C-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore.


Heading into the weekend, Walt Disney Studios was hoping its revamped Pixar Animation title would replicate the success of last September’s 3-D version of “The Lion King,” which grossed a surprisingly robust $94.2 million. Instead, it looks like the updated “Finding Nemo” may have a similar theatrical run to the 3-D re-release of “Beauty and the Beast,” which ultimately sold $47.6 million worth of receipts.


It was the strength of the 3-D “Lion King” that prompted Disney to decide to re-release four more of its titles in the format. Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive vice president of distribution, said that movie may have fared better than the 3-D “Finding Nemo” because the jungle tale “hadn’t been available on home video for a good many number of years, so there was a different degree of pent-up demand for that title.”


Though the new “Finding Nemo” didn’t live up to expectations, it didn’t cost Disney much. The studio said it spent less than $5 million to convert the film to 3-D. Meanwhile, the studio is still planning to release 3-D versions of “Monsters Inc.” and “The Little Mermaid.”

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