SUNDAY AM, 7TH UPDATE: I’m told this is the first time there are three $20 million pics on a September weekend. No wonder it’s been shifting like quicksand at the North American box office, with the Top 3 order changing and then changing again. Everyone agrees that Lion King 3D is now No. 1, but Moneyball and Dolphin Tale were neck-and-neck for No. 2 going into this morning. At first, Warner Bros had its Alcon Entertainment fish story ahead of Sony Pictures baseball tale — but only by $110,000. Nevertheless Sony and other studios and eventually Alcon have Moneyball ahead by as much as $500K. So I’m calling it for Moneyball. Friday night also had no clarity because of Rentrak hiccups during the day. Can’t we all just get along, especially when I’m on vacation?

1. Even Disney is surprised that its Lion King 3D is king of the jungle again in 2,330 theaters after its huge 1st-place finish last weekend. Rival studios tell me it got a boost Friday from the rain back East for a $6M Friday for an excellent hold. And another giant kiddie matinee bump on Saturday for $9.2M and on Sunday a projected $6.8M. That’s a $22.1M weekend and only a modest -30% decline from a week ago. This re-release can hit a cume of $61.6M by Monday. This is the first reissue to open #1 in 14 years. An interesting story is how Disney’s original release plan called for one weekend on 500 3D screens. Then, the studio saw the tracking for Dolphin Tale and decided to expand to two weekends on 1,500 3D screens, thus hogging most of the high-priced 3D venues. It was a shrewd targeted hit on Warner Bros, and probably cost Dolphin Tale at least $5M-$10M in box office. So here’s my question: Why is it that in all the promotional hype I’ve been sent by the studio, no one at Disney is thanking Jeffrey Katzenberg for micro-managing the original Lion King? C’mon, Mouse House, give credit where credit is due. Even if Jeffrey is a big pain in everyone’s ass.

2. Sony’s much-hyped newcomer Moneyball is now officially the best baseball-themed opening ever. (Not accounting for inflation or higher ticket prices, it beat Benchwarmers‘ $19.6M, The Rookie’s $16M, and A League Of Their Own‘s $13.7M.) It opened No. 1 Friday with $6.7M and then soared +24% to $8.3M Saturday from 2,993 theaters. (As a Sony exec told me, “$6 million would be great. $7 million amazing. $8 million would be a triumph.”) With that healthy adult bump, it scored a $20.7M weekend which is on target with the studio’s expectations. That solid number helps keep Brad Pitt’s star wattage shining and his awards chances climbing because of this well-reviewed male-centric sports movie that scored 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. (As Deadline Hollywood’s Awards columnist Pete Hammond opined out of the Toronto Film Festival: “This is a classic movie star role in the tradition of something that Robert Redford or Paul Newman would have done in their prime. He has never been better, and the movie is the best sports film since Bull Durham, a real triumph considering the long and winding road it took to get to the screen.”) Audiences really liked this pic: it received all A’s — male, female, young, old — from CinemaScore. By age, 36% were under 35 and 64% were over 35. But a rival studio exec points out that almost 60% of the audience was over age 50. Sony believes Moneyball could play strongly through the Fall generating a multiple that could very well exceed 4X and 5X its opening.

Marketing targeted adult moviegoers and was designed to appeal to both men and women. Call me sexist, but I thought targeting women was hopeless for a pic based on the true story of Billy Beane who rebuilt the Oakland A’s in 2002 through computer-driven statistical analysis long ignored by the baseball establishment. (This stuff makes my eyes glaze over…) But exit surveys showed the film was almost evenly split with 51% male and 49% female moviegoers. To build awareness among men, Sony had a strong presence in sports programming, especially baseball where the campaign kicked off during the MLB All-Star Game in July. Trailers aired on the MLB Network, while spots also ran in high-profile NFL games including the season opener. In recent weeks, Moneyball‘s presence was in MLB games across FOX, ESPN, and TBS and select NCAA football games. The TV campaign took advantage of primetime premieres and high-impact specials, including the Emmys and MTV’s VMAs. On cable, Moneyball had sneak peeks on Sons of Anarchy, Tosh.0, Conan and ESPN’s SportsCenter. To reach women, Sony bought spots on Dancing With the Stars and Glee while Pitt appeared on Ellen this week and was pretty much omnipresent as both producer and star.

Like most movies these days, Moneyball had a twisted and tortured history to the big screen. Michael Lewis wrote a great book, and producer Rachael Horovitz recognized the bones of a great movie. Initially, baseball freak Steven Soderbergh was involved but passed because of other commitments. Eventually Sony brought in producer Michael De Luca to join Horovitz and, 5 years later in 2009, Soderbergh was back to direct. But in a well-chrincled case of creative differences, the Oscar-winning director was jettisoned from the film just 72 hours before production was to begin when the studio changed its mind about his changes to Steven Zaillian’s adaptation. (Soderbergh’s primary addition included Reds-like testimonials from real-life players which mae it more like a documentary.) Studio chief Amy Pascal felt Soderbergh’s version wasn’t commercial enough and pulled the plug. Conventional wisdom had it that the pic was a goner. But Pitt stayed on board throughout and Pascal stuck with this project instead of taking a writedown. Funny how women are often seen as not knowing anything about sports, yet in this case it took two Hollywood females to push this one through. The project got back on track with executive producer Scott Rudin along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who did a polish on Zaillian’s script (both get credit now). Pitt himself praises director Bennett Miller (an Oscar nod for Capote first-time out), who replaced Soderbergh and then had the vision to “crack” the film’s outsider/insider themes by making an unconventional film about them.

3. Incredibly close behind is Alcon Entertainment’s Dolphin Tale 3D distributed into 3,507 theaters by Warner Bros. It opened with $5.1M Friday and zoomed to $8.6M Saturday for a $20.2M weekend. Alcon expected the heartstrings-pulling pic to jump 60% on Saturday because of the family film bump. It did a staggering +70% more. Remember, it’s also playing in the most theaters. According to CinemaScores, parents and kids audiences are giving it an A+. The film now becomes the highest opening weekend for a live action film with an animal, passing Disney’s Eight Below. With its inspirational story, Warner Bros expected to own the family marketplace this weekend and give Moneyball a run for No. 1 this weekend. But no one anticipated the continued strength of Lion King 3D. The strategy for Dolphin Tale was to reach primarily parents and kids with this real-life story and fine ensemble cast. The studio devised a very long trailer campaign in order to get maximum exposure beginning in April and playing through the summer on everything from Rio to Cars 2. The TV strategy was robust, covering everything from kids cable in late summer before school started, through key season premieres such as Dancing With The Stars and Biggest Loser, to a wide array of sponsorships with Discovery, Teen Nick, Lifetime, Nation Geographic, Disney XD, MTV, and more. Warner Bros crafted an aggressive word-of-mouth screening program that involved 3 full rounds in the top 60 markets. Military and home schoolers were targeted as well as youth groups and other family-oriented orgs. The director and cast completed a 7-market PA tour that included a junket to accommodate Winter, the real-life star of the film who had her own live Winter-cam. Online, there was a first-time integration with the Spongebob Squarepants Facebook page given the sea theme.

4. Lionsgate’s Abduction in 3,118 theaters ended up with  $3.8M Friday but went up +21% Saturday for $4.6m and an $11.2M opening for the weekend. But I’ve just learned it’s #1 this weeknd in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia as it begins its day ad date foreign rollout. Through Sunday, Hollywood eyes have been focused on its star Taylor Lautner in his first leading man role in an action thriller because he’s been very much in demand — presumably because of his enormous Twi-hard fan base and aggressive promotion of his films – but not because of any solo box office which the 19-year-old has done yet. Yes, Tay-Tay received $5M for this pic which his production company also produced. Then again, I’ve learned that Lautner’s $36M-budget action thriller was outspent 4-to-1 in marketing dollars by both Sony and Warner Bros leading up to this weekend. (Shame on Lionsgate’s Jon Feltheimer for tying everyone’s hands even after powerless Alli Shearmur pleaded.) So the jury is still out on whether this Twilight kid can open an envelope, especially in as rotten a reviewed movie as this one was based on Shawn Christensen’s $1M spec script and directed by John Singleton. (“Silly” and “convoluted” were the words used most often to describe it.) Audiences didn’t think it was quite as bad as critics, giving it a B- CinemaScore. Lionsgate can’t seem to make a decent movie (Conan The Barbarian) or market one anymore (Warrior).

An $11M outcome is less than the $15M outcomevit appeared to be earlier Friday and definitely not the $12M-$14M range which the studio told me it needed to show a “nice profit” for the film. ”But Taylor’s a great kid. He’s worked hard for us, doing about 8 national TV shows and endless amounts of press,” one of the execs said to me. “We know the opening weekend box office averages for Taylor’s Twilight co-stars, so this falls in the zone of what was to be expected. There are lots of movies opening this weekend to a variety of audiences, but ours is laser-targeted to tweens and we hope to dominate that market.” Lionsgate simultaneously streamed the premiere to an additional 20 regional markets and broadcast the Red Carpet online as ‘The Abduction Fan Premiere Live Event’ with 50M impressions. Media promotions included ABC Family and Channel One, the in-school network that reaches 2.3 million teens aged 15–17.  Other youth-focused exploitation included an announcer spot for Tay-Tay at the VMAs (tied to a sweepstakes to ‘Get Abducted’ to the awards). It wasn’t nearly enough.

5. Open Road Film’s Killer Elite looks like only $9.5M for the weekend from 2,986 theaters. But when the veteran star trio of Robert DeNiro, Jason Statham, and Clive Owen can’t knock off Lautner solo in a lousy movie, that’s worth noting. This pic based on a true story went up to only $3.6M on Saturday after its $3.3M debut Friday. CinemaScore was a B. I hear Open Road acquired the film for nothing, only P&A, so it’ll be nicely profitable. Not bad for the company’s first release. A few notes about the Killer Elite marketing campaign: it had the predictably heavy presence in sports including an ‘NFL on FOX’ TV promotion with a “Killer” prize of trip to LA to hang out with the Fox sports on-air guys, a promotion with Spike TV’s UFC Fight Night, and even Comedy Central’s Charlie Sheen Roast. De Niro made a rare late-night talk show appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live where he sat down with Kimmel’s security guard-turned celeb interviewer Guillermo. And MTV Networks did a direct email campaign to target demos within their very large customer database.

Here’s the rest of the Top 10:

6. Contagion (Participant/Warner Bros) Week 3 [3,136 Theaters]
Friday $2.6M, Saturday $3.8M, Weekend $8.5M, Cume $57.1M

7. Drive (FilmDistrict) Week 2 [2,904 Theaters]
Friday $1.8M, Saturday $2.4M, Weekend $5.7M (-50%), Cume $21.4M

8. The Help (Participant/DreamWorks/Disney] Week 7 [2,695 Theaters]
Friday $1.3M, Saturday $1.9M, Weekend $4.4M, Cume $154.4M

9. Straw Dogs (Sony) Week 2 [2,408 Theaters]
Friday $690, Saturday $860K, Weekend $2.1M (-60%), Cume $8.8M

10. I Don’t Know How She Does It (Weinstein Co) Week 2 [2,490 Theaters]
Friday $677K, Saturday $860K, Weekend $2M (-53%), Cume $8M

FRIDAY 4 PM: On vacation. So box office is brought to you from a sunny climate where the palm trees sway in time to the dancing trade winds… But back home there’s a fierce fight going on. These are very early grosses, and my sources say Rentrak has been experiencing problems today — thus giving Hollywood even more Maalox moments than usual. Sony’s Moneyball starring Brad Pitt will be No. 1 with approx $8M Friday and possibly mid-$20sM for the weekend. That solid number helps Brad Pitt’s awards chances in this well-received male-centric sports movie. Right now Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros’ Dolphin Tale and Lionsgate’s Abduction are battling for No. 2 with around $6M today and what could be high teens for the weekend. Interesting, because the heartstrings-pulling pic was tracking much better. Then again, Taylor Lautner’s action thriller is playing in 389 less theaters. So anyone who claimed this Twilight kid couldn’t open an envelope is wrong, wrong, wrong: there are major stars who would be thrilled with that outcome, especially in as rotten a reviewed movie as this one. Open Road’s Killer Elite looks a notch lower – maybe $5M today, and low teens for the weekend. Frequent updates coming with full analysis.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.