"When you look up his filmography — it doesn't matter whether it was yesterday or 20 years ago — Denzel opens movies," said Paramount distribution head Don Harris.
Harris said the studio counted only about 15 theaters lost to "Flight" due to power outages.
Aside from the draw of Washington, "Flight" is also the first live-action film in 12 years for Zemeckis. The director, whose films include the "Back to the Future" trilogy and "Cast Away," had spent the last decade on performance-capture animated films like "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol." Harris called the return "spectacular" and said: "It's almost like: Where have you been?"
Ben Affleck's Iran hostage tale "Argo," in its fourth week of release, expanded to 2,774 theaters. The Warner Bros. film added $10.2 million, bringing its cumulative gross to $75.9 million — a healthy haul for a film expected to be in the thick of the Oscar hunt.
The Universal kung fu flick "The Man With the Iron Fists," directed by RZA of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan, opened with a debut of $8.2 million.
Overseas, the James Bond film "Skyfall" continued to dominate. It took in $156 million over the weekend bringing its international total to $287 million. The film opens in North America on Friday.
The strong box-office weekend — up 21 percent from the same weekend last year — bodes well for Hollywood ahead of the arrival of "Skyfall" and the upcoming holiday movie season.
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 Monday.
1. "Wreck-It Ralph," $49.1 million.