By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oscar-nominated war film "American Sniper" led U.S. and Canadian box office charts over the weekend with a record-smashing $90.2 million in ticket sales, according to studio estimates.
The film, which broke the record for a January weekend as well as for any drama opening ever, was directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Bradley Cooper.
"American Sniper" virtually doubled industry expectations after widely expanding to some 3,500 screens from just a handful of theaters the day after scoring six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for Cooper, who plays a Navy Seal sharpshooter.
R-rated comedy "The Wedding Ringer" finished second with $21 million for three days through Sunday during the U.S. Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend.
Another new release, family film "Paddington" based on the series of classic children's books about a loveable bear, was third with $19.3 million, but could move up to second after Monday when schools are closed.
Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution at the Time Warner Inc. unit Warner Bros., which distributed "American Sniper," said it had become "an instant cultural phenomenon."
"People in small towns, big and small cities, in the heartland, in both red and blue states, people who go to the movies once every year or two, they all came out," Fellman said.
The film, expected to add another $15 million on Monday, set records in IMAX theaters, unusual for a drama, and far surpassed Eastwood's "Gran Torino" which opened at $29.5 million in 2008.
"The Wedding Ringer" stars Kevin Hart and Josh Gad in a buddy comedy about a for-hire best man, played by Hart. It also set a record, for an R-rated comedy January opening.
"We definitely succeeded alongside it," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Corp's studio, speaking to "Sniper"'s success which did not hurt other top films. "It's been a fun weekend to watch."
The family-friendly "Paddington," which won rave reviews with 98 percent of critics on website Rottentomatoes giving it a fresh rating, chronicles the adventures of the bear, voiced by Ben Whishaw, who travels to London from Peru seeking a home. Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman star.
Rounding out the top five, Liam Neeson thriller "Taken 3" took in $14.1 million, according to tracking firm Rentrak, while civil rights drama and Oscar nominee "Selma" earned $8.3 million.
"Paddington" was released by The Weinstein Company. "Taken 3" was distributed by Fox, a unit of Twenty-first Century Fox. "Selma" was distributed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell)