By Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Prisoners," a dark thriller starring Hugh Jackman as a father on a desperate search for his missing daughter, locked up the weekend box office title in the United States and Canada, grabbing $21.4 million in ticket sales during its first three days in theaters.
Last weekend's leader, the low-budget horror flick "Insidious: Chapter 2," dropped to second place with $14.5 million, according to studio estimates on Sunday.
The dance movie "Battle of the Year" made its debut in the No. 5 slot with $5 million, topped by both mob comedy "The Family" with $7 million and Spanish language hit "Instructions Not Included" with $5.7 million.
Box office watchers projected "Prisoners" would start with a $20 million weekend. The movie earned strong reviews from critics and early Oscar buzz after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. As of Saturday, 79 percent of critics recommended "Prisoners," according to reviews collected on the Rotten Tomatoes website.
"It's a very gratifying result," said Broderick Johnson, co-founder and co-CEO of Alcon Entertainment and a producer of the film, noting that the thriller was "not an easy, straight-forward film" and was more akin to "a non-conventional indie (independent film)."
Johnson said "Prisoners" was "a bit of a water cooler film, with people discussing its twists and turns. It generates conversations, which should generate even more interest in it."
The movie is the story of the search for two girls who are kidnapped on Thanksgiving Day. One of their fathers, a Pennsylvania survivalist played by Jackman, grows frustrated with the police investigation and employs his own methods to find out what happened.
The movie was produced for $46 million by Alcon Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Ticket sales for "Insidious: Chapter 2," about a family haunted by spirits, dropped 64 percent from its debut a week earlier. The $5 million production has grossed a cumulative $60.9 million through Sunday.
The 3D "Battle of the Year" cost $20 million to make. The film stars "Lost" TV show actor Josh Holloway as the coach of a team competing in an international breakdancing competition. R&B singer Chris Brown plays one of the dancers.
Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures' worldwide president of distribution, said that while the picture performed "toward the lower end of our expectations, it was always laid out as a film that would resonate around the world." It is scheduled for an international roll out starting in late September and going into November.
The Robert De Niro comedy "The Family," about a mobster who relocates his family to France, finished in the No. 3 spot on the weekend charts, while the hit Mexican family film "Instructions Not Included" was fourth, with ticket sales up 17 percent in its fourth weekend in release for a cumulative box office total of $34.3 million.
"Prisoners" was distributed by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc. FilmDistrict released "Insidious: Chapter 2." Sony Corp's movie studio released "Battle of the Year." "The Family" was distributed by Relativity Media, and "Instructions Not Included" was distributed by Pantelion, a joint venture of Hollywood studio Lions Gate Entertainment and Mexican media giant Televisa.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud; Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott)