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SUNDAY AM: Not only were the shopping malls crowded this pre-Christmas weekend, but even more so the domestic box office which scored the biggest December weekend in Hollywood history. Disney / Buena Vista’s mystery thriller National Treasure 2 opened extremely wide to at least $16.5 million Friday and $15.5 million Saturday and an estimated $13.5 million Sunday from 3,832 theaters for a $45.5 million start. cage.jpgThat’s right in line with predictions for this sequel Book Of Secrets which jumped into the No. 1 spot. It’s a much bigger haul than the $35.1 mil debut of the 2004 original National Treasure (which went on to make $173M domestic gross and $347M worldwide total and snag Oren Aviv his promotion to president of production for the Walt Disney Pictures Group).

Jerry Bruckheimer’s NT2 proved to be a four-quadrant flick with males and females, young and older, families and teen girls and boys. ”That’s the holy grail of marketing, when a film has this kind of broad appeal,” a thrilled Disney exec told me. ”I think we should really cha-ching through the holidays, into New Year’s weekend, and roll through January, MLK weekend, etc.” juno1.jpgWhat with this Friday through Monday period taken over by last-minute shopping and present-wrapping and holiday travel and stormy weather, Disney execs were trying to lower expectations to around $40 mil for the 3-day total. “But, given the long stretch this year between Christmas and New Year’s, the film that’s #1 this weekend will have a real shot at remaining the #1 film for many weeks to come, even into January,” one of the toppers told me.

Right behind National Treasure, Fox Searchlight’s teenage crowd pleaser Juno scored the 2nd highest per screen average. It widened in release to sneak into the Top 10 with $6.3 million from just 304 venues. A terrific ad campaign and appealing characters, as well as writing and direction, have made this pic a winner from the start and a surefire Oscar nominee in several categories.

No. 2 went to Warner Bros’ holdover, I Am Legend starring Will Smith, whose cumulative is already a whopping  $137.4 million thanks to Will Smith’s staggering appeal after piling on another $34.2 mil this weekend from a slightly expanded theater count of 3,620. The pic amassed more than $100 mil during just its first week in release. 20th Century Fox’s Alvin And The Chipmunks places 3rd with $29 mil from 3,499 runs since there was no new kiddie fare around to compete for Saturday matinees.

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This is another great result for Fox’s prudent combination of low production cost and super high return in an arena that Hollywood elitists usually dismiss — the family film. (Fox has had one of these, to great results, at Christmas time 4 years running, from Cheaper By The Dozen to last year’s huge hit Night At The Museum.) The Munks’ new cume is already $84.8 mil.

But there was also shaping up to be a very interesting three-way race for the No. 4 spot among newcomers — the first-time teaming of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War from Universal (2,574 dates), and Oscar-touted Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter from DreamWorks / Paramount (only half as many venues, 1,249), and Judd Apatow’s produced and co-written music biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story from Sony (2,650 plays). All three R-rated pics were considered very adult, but Charlie Wilson’s War and Walk Hard were thought to be especially tough sells based on tracking even though both were smartly marketed. None wound up passing $10 mil.

charlie3.jpgUni’s Charlie Wilson’s War debuted 4th atop the heap of the adult pics with $9.6 mil for the weekend from 2,575 plays no doubt helped by its short running time (only 90 minutes). That’s not much in terms of box office, especially at a budget of $75 mil. Still, the high placement in the Top 10 was a shocker since the plot was so political, and the facts of this biopic based on the book with the same name were called into question (Not to mention Julia Roberts was stuck with that unfortunate hairdo and wardrobe…) But the pic appealed to oldsters, no doubt because of its pedigree with two giant stars and director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. ”I don’t understand how anyone can be negative about that. We’re thrilled to tell you that 80% of the audience was over 30 and half the audience was over 50,” a Uni exec told me.

sweeney4.jpgBy contrast, DreamWorks / Paramount’s Sweeney Todd beat Charlie on Friday on half as many screens, 1,249, ($3.8M to $2.8M) but the situation reversed on Saturday ($2.8M to $3.7M). By the end of the weekend, Sweeney amassed $9.3 million with amazing exit polling showing that across the borad there were raves from every demographic and age group. College kids made the difference for Johnny Depp on Friday night while the older crowd showed up for Tom Hanks on Saturday night.

But the other story was the collapse of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story which placed only 8th despite savvy marketing by Sony. True, the film hadn’t been tracking well all along but the studio thought it would uptick at the last moment like Superbad. “This shows Judd Apatow is not god,” one rival studio exec noted. “Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.”  Said another, “I think Sony was relying on the idea that if you had the only comedy at Christmas, you would do fine.” The pic produced and co-written by Apatow and starring John C. Reilly debuted to only $4.1 million from 2,650 venues. Sony was disappointed, natch. “We were expecting more from this weekend and know that audiences will ultimately discover the movie through word of mouth,” an insider told me. “It may ultimately happen in its DVD window, but because the movie was made for a modest $35M, we hope to get to where we need to be.”  The problem was the movie skewed overwhelmingly male, but that guy audience went for action-adventure and sawe National Treasure and I Am Legend instead.

hillaryswank1.jpgAmazingly, Warner Bros’ romantic laugher P.S. I Love You beat the Apatow comedy with $6.5 mil from 2,454 plays, good enough for a 6th place opening, even though the pic should have been retitled P.U. because it stinks. Not only was dramatic actress Hilary Swank horribly cast as a comedienne, but even studio execs were poking fun at their own flick in internal meetings. (Jokes about Swank’s toothy grin, for instance…)

For more estimates listed by title, see box office results here...

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