"Burn After Reading's" success comes just a year after the brothers gained widespread acclaim for the drama "No Country for Old Men," which won four Academy Awards and grossed $73.3 million.
Their Oscar credentials and the star-studded cast combined to make "Burn After Reading" a hit, said Jack Foley, president of distribution for Focus Features.
"The Coens have broken into more commercial territory with this film," Foley said. "They've become more of a household name."
The weekend's three other new releases also turned in solid performances.
Writer-director Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys," starring Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard in a drama about two families from different social classes, debuted at No. 2 with $18 million. Five out of six of Perry's films have opened at No. 1 or No. 2 on their opening weekends, said Steve Rothenberg, president of domestic distribution for Lionsgate.
Rothenberg said he expected "The Family that Preys" to continue to play well over upcoming weekends as Perry's movies typically do.
"It should have good legs," he said.
Overture Film's "Righteous Kill" opened at No. 3 with $16.5 million, proving that A-list stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino still draw fans. The movie played to a wide range of ages and both genders, said Kyle Davies, Overture's executive vice president of theatrical distribution.
"The primary appeal is to see these two legends together," he said.
Picturehouse's "The Women" - starring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening in a remake of George Cukor's 1939 comedy-drama - was No. 4 with $10.1 million.
The weekend's total box-office draw should surpass $100 million, breaking a seven-week slide in ticket revenue, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers. Last weekend was the slowest moviegoing weekend in five years, with just $67.6 million.
He attributed the uptick to the variety in genres that studios offered this weekend.
"Audiences want a lot of choice," he said. "Each of these movies had a particular demographic. This was the cinematic equivalent of a magazine rack."
The next seven films in the top dozen were holdovers, grossing $4.3 million or less.
The Batman sequel "The Dark Knight" continued to rack up its gross with another $4 million, for total box office revenue of $517.7 million to date.
Last weekend's top-ranked "Bangkok Dangerous" starring Nicolas Cage dropped to eighth place with $2.4 million.
The top 12 movies at U.S. and Canadian theaters Friday through Sunday, as estimated by Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Burn After Reading," $19.4 million. 2. "Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys," $18.0 million.
3. "Righteous Kill," $16.5 million.
4. "The Women," $10.1 million.
5. "The House Bunny," $4.3 million.
6. "Tropic Thunder," $4.2 million.
7. "The Dark Knight," $4.0 million.
8. "Bangkok Dangerous," $2.4 million.
9. "Traitor," $2.1 million.
10. "Death Race," $2.0 million.
11. "Babylon A.D.," $1.7 million.
12. "Mamma Mia!," $1.7 million.
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