The President's Day weekend box office was too close to call as the action tale "Safe House" and the love story "The Vow" competed for the No. 1 spot.
Based on Sunday's studio estimates, Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds' "Safe House" had a slim lead with $24 million from Friday to Sunday. That put it a fraction ahead of Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum's "The Vow" with $23.6 million.
The winner won't be known for certain until Tuesday, when studios will report final numbers for the long holiday weekend. Final numbers often vary from weekend projections, which include estimates for the size of Sunday's audiences.
No matter which one finishes on top, the movie business remains unusually brisk for winter, typically a slow season at theaters. The business uptick comes after Hollywood lumbered through a humdrum holiday season at the end of last year, when audiences were apathetic about most new releases.
"I still think people don't want to stay home, and if you give them good choices, you get them out," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal Pictures, which released "Safe House."
The top-five movies were bunched up tightly, with Nicolas Cage's sequel "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" opening a close No. 3 with $22 million.
Dwayne Johnson's family action tale "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" was No. 4 with $20.1 million. Reese Witherspoon's love-triangle comedy "This Means War" debuted at No. 5 with $17.6 million.
Starring Washington as a CIA traitor on the run, "Safe House" raised its domestic total to $78.2 million. Sony Screen Gems' "The Vow," which features McAdams as an amnesiac car-accident victim becoming reacquainted with her husband (Tatum), lifted its total to $85.5 million.
While "Safe House" and "The Vow" held up well, Sony's "Ghost Rider" follow-up came in below industry expectations, doing a bit less than half the $45 million the first one pulled in with its 2007 debut.
In "Spirit of Vengeance," Cage reprises his Marvel Comics role as Satan's bounty hunter, this time trying to save a child from the devil.
Released by Warner Bros., "Journey 2" is a modern take on Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island." It padded its total to $53.2 million.
In 20th Century Fox's "This Means War," Witherspoon plays a woman who captures the hearts of two CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy), the spy guys going from best pals to rivals as they pursue her.
Disney's English-language version of the Japanese animated hit "The Secret World of Arrietty" opened in narrower release and came in at No. 9 with $6.4 million. Based on Mary Norton's children's novel "The Borrowers," about tiny people living beneath the floorboards of a house, the film features a voice cast that includes Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett.
The weekend's overall domestic revenues totaled $160 million, up 10.7 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Unknown" led with a $21.9 million debut, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
So far this year, revenues have soared to $1.42 billion, a 19 percent increase from 2011's receipts.
"Every weekend this year has been up vs. the comparable weekend a year ago, so Hollywood is definitely on a roll right now," said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Tuesday.
1. "Safe House," $24 million ($6 million international).
2. "The Vow," $23.6 million ($6.8 million international).
3. "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," $22 million.
4. "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," $20.1 million ($26 million international).
5. "This Means War," $17.6 million ($11 million international).
6. "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace" in 3-D, $7.9 million ($10 million international).
7. "Chronicle," $7.5 million.
8. "The Woman in Black," $6.6 million ($8.4 million international).
9. "The Secret World of Arrietty," $6.4 million.
10. "The Grey," $3 million.
Estimated weekend ticket sales at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada) for films distributed overseas by Hollywood studios, according to Rentrak:
1. "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," $26 million.
2. "This Means War," $11 million.
3. "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace" in 3-D, $10 million.
4. "The Woman in Black," $8.4 million.
5. "The Muppets," $7.6 million.
6. "The Descendants," $7.5 million.
7. "The Vow," $6.8 million.
8. "Safe House," $6 million.
9. "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," $5.8 million.
10. "Jack and Jill," $5.5 million.
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.