It was a great weekend to be a director named Paul Anderson.

Not only did Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil: Retribution become his fourth straight Resident Evil film to debut atop the chart; Paul Thomas Anderson's drama The Master had one of the best opening weekends of all time in limited release.

In first place, Resident Evil: Retribution, the fifth entry in the stalwart horror/action franchise, earned $21.1 million — 21 percent less than 2010's Resident Evil: Afterlife, which began with $26.7 million. This is the first time that a Resident Evil movie has earned less than its predecessor. The original Resident Evil earned $17.7 million in 2002. Resident Evil: Apocalypse grossed $23.0 million in 2004. Resident Evil: Extinction scored $23.7 million in 2007. Notably, Retribution, which is being distributed in 3-D and IMAX, also sold the fewest tickets of any of the Resident Evil films in its opening weekend.

Sony, who is distributing the $65 million Milla Jovovich (Paul W.S. Anderson's wife) vehicle under its Screen Gems division, isn't worried, though. The Resident Evil franchise's international prospects have grown substantially over the last decade, and with a $50 million international start this weekend, Retribution has a good shot at finishing ahead of Afterlife's $296 million worldwide cume. Audiences issued the film a "C+" CinemaScore grade.

Disney's 3-D re-release Finding Nemo made a more modest splash in second place with $17.5 million. Though the family film, which was converted into 3-D for less than $5 million, was expected to top the chart, Nemo was unable to match the numbers of Disney's recent 3-D re-releases The Lion King, which debuted with $30.2 million in September 2011, or even Beauty and the Beast, which began with $17.8 million earlier this year.

Ever since The Lion King's successful 3-D run, which added $94.2 million to its total, studios have been eager to capitalize on the low-cost high-return 3-D re-release strategy. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace raced to $43.5 million earlier this year. Titanic garnered $57.9 million domestically — and $343 million worldwide. Next up, Disney will re-release Monsters, Inc. (out Dec. 19), and next year will bring 3-D re-releases of two more Star Wars films, as well as Jurassic Park and The Little Mermaid — and those are just the films we've already heard about. Yet Finding Nemo's softer-than-expected weekend reveals that audiences may be losing interest in the gimmick rather quickly.

When all is said and done, Finding Nemo will prove a financial boon for Disney, even if it finishes in the same range as Beauty and the Beast 3-D, which took in $47.6 million. Conversion costs were minimal, and for the Mouse House, merchandising is far more lucrative than theatrical earnings. Nemo's solid box office run will keep the film's characters (and appeal) alive as audiences wait for the recently announced Finding Nemo 2.

Lionsgate's $14 million demonic effort The Possession grossed $5.8 million in its third weekend, a drop of just 38 percent. The "Based on a True Story" film, which stars Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, has held up much better than equivalent horror titles and has now earned $41.2 million total.

Two other holdovers rounded out the Top 5. In fourth, Warner Bros/' bootlegging crime drama Lawless fell 30 percent to $4.2 million, lifting its total to $30.1 million after three weeks. In fifth, Focus Features' ParaNorman earned another $3.0 million, giving the creepy kid flick $49.3 million after a full month in theaters.

1. Resident Evil: Retribution – $21.1 million

2. Finding Nemo – $17.5 million

3. The Possession – $5.8 million

4. Lawless – $4.2 million

5. ParaNorman – $3.0 million

Further down the chart, two movies made impressive debuts in limited release. Arbitrage, the buzzy financial thriller starring Richard Gere, grossed $2.1 million from 197 theaters, yielding a terrific per theater average of $10,508. The film opened on VOD this weekend as well.

'CAUSE' I SAID SO Philip Seymour Hoffman's crackpot-charismatic Pied Piper of self-actualization Lancaster Dodd takes damaged Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, left) under his wing in…
‘CAUSE’ I SAID SO Philip Seymour Hoffman’s crackpot-charismatic Pied Piper of self-actualization Lancaster Dodd takes damaged Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, left) under his wing in The Master
| Credit: Phil Bray

Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which is totally, definitely NOT about Scientology (and wouldya stop asking?!), grossed a stunning $729,745 from just 5 theaters, which gave the film a per theater average of $145,949 — the best opening weekend average for a live-action film of all time.

The Master's phenomenal per theater average outshadows Moonrise Kingdom, which broke the same record earlier this year. (*Note: Kevin Smith's Red State technically holds this record, as it grossed $204,230 from 1 theater in its 2011 debut, yet that film's bow was more of a special event — tickets cost $40 and Kevin Smith was present, so it's not a totally fair comparison.) The Weinstein Co., who declined to provide budget information for the film, says The Master will expand into at least 135 markets next weekend — about 600-800 theaters.

One other wide release is worth mentioning: Last Ounce of Courage, which debuted to $1.7 million out of 1,407 theaters. The film, which is described as "the original story of a grieving grandfather who is inspired to take a stand for faith and freedom against a tide of apathy and vanishing liberty," is being distributed by Rocky Mountain Pictures — the same studio that pushed conservative documentary 2016: Obama's America to its impressive $30.1 million total. Rather than platforming the indie, Rocky Mountain pushed the indie into wide release right away. Was that a smart strategy? Perhaps. The film doesn't seem like the kind that would have garnered buzzy word-of-mouth, so platforming may have proved ineffective. And yet, the wide release wasn't totally effective either — the film finished with a weak $1,214 average.

Courage certainly fared better than three other limited releases, which turned in unimpressive grosses. Nicolas Cage's Stolen grossed $204,000 from 141 theaters, Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts found $30,000 from 4 theaters, and Channing Tatum's 10 Years earned $23,300 from 3 theaters. It's safe to say that the high school reunion dramedy won't be joining Magic Mike in the $100+ million club.

Check back next weekend for full box office coverage of Dredd 3D, End of Watch, House at the End of the Street, and Trouble With the Curve, and follow me on Twitter for up-to-the-minute box office updates and analysis: Follow @EWGradySmith.

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