By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Liam Neeson thriller "Taken 2" captured the No. 1 spot on movie box office charts over the weekend with a brawny $50 million take from theaters in the United States and Canada.
"Taken 2" stars Neeson as a former CIA agent kidnapped during a vacation in Istanbul. The movie added $55 million from some 50 international markets for a global opening of $117 million including Korea where it opened earlier, distributor 20th Century Fox said.
The strong debut for "Taken 2" pushed last weekend's winner, family flick "Hotel Transylvania," to second place. The movie about a hotel run by Dracula earned $26.3 million from Friday through Sunday, according to studio estimates compiled by Reuters. Comedy "Pitch Perfect" snagged the No. 3 slot with $14.7 million.
North American (U.S. and Canadian) sales for "Taken 2" were more than double the original film's, which opened in January 2009 with $24.7 million and ultimately grossed a surprising $227 million around the world. The movie lifted Neeson to the ranks of Hollywood action stars, leading to roles in movies such as "Clash of the Titans" and "The Grey."
"This so exceeded our expectations going in," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, noting that Fox had anticipated something "in the mid-30s range" after what he called a "sluggish market" since the summer.
"The come in at $50 million is really remarkable, and a testament to this character that Liam has created," Aronson told Reuters.
The executive noted that the audience was almost evenly split male-female, and also played strongly across age groups, with more than half over the age of 25.
Fox co-financed the film with Europa Corp, the company run by "Taken" writer and director Luc Besson, and contributed $36 million to its budget, Aronson said. Reports have put the total budget at about $50 million.
"Hotel Transylvania" won the weekend battle for pre-Halloween family filmgoers, leaving new Walt Disney Co movie "Frankenweenie" in fifth place. Through two weekends, "Transylvania" has grossed $76 million in the domestic market.
"Pitch Perfect," about a college all-girls singing group moved up the charts as it expanded nationwide following an impressive limited opening last weekend. The movie stars Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow.
"There's a lot to be said about this little engine that could," said Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution for Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp, noting that the film only cost $17 million.
"It's on the road to very nice profitability for Universal," she said, adding that the studio expected "word of mouth, which we know is great" would help the film develop legs beyond its core, targeted audience, which, Rocco said, "loves it."
Rounding out the charts, time-travel movie "Looper" earned fourth place with $12.2 million domestically. Sales for the movie starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt reached $40.3 million for the two-week run.
Disney's "Frankenweenie" grossed $11.5 million at domestic theaters. The black-and-white stop-motion film directed by Tim Burton tells the story of a boy who brings his beloved dog back to life using Frankenstein-like science. The movie cost $39 million to produce.
News Corp's 20th Century Fox studio distributed "Taken 2." Sony Corp's film studio released "Hotel Transylvania" and "Looper." "Pitch Perfect" was distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp.
(This version of the story has been corrected to fix title of Fox executive in paragraph 5)
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Doina Chiacu)