This was the first weekend in wide release for "Big Fish," which stars Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor in the fanciful adventures of a man who tells larger-than-life tales. The film opened in late December in a handful of theaters for Academy Awards consideration.
Expanding to 2,406 theaters, "Big Fish" averaged $6,027 per cinema, compared to $3,999 in 3,532 theaters for "Return of the King."
The weekend's only new wide releases were two poorly reviewed movies, the Eddie Griffin comedy "My Baby's Daddy," which ranked No. 6 with $7.8 million, and Mandy Moore's romance "Chasing Liberty," which was No. 7 with $6 million.
January traditionally is a dead zone for new releases, with audiences shrinking after the holiday boom and studios dumping mediocre flicks into theaters.
The overall box office was up compared to last year, though, with the top 12 movies taking in $92.5 million, up 5 percent from the same weekend in 2003.
Distributor Sony rolled out "Big Fish" slowly to build audience word of mouth for a complex film that was not an easy sell for Hollywood's marketing machine.
"It was a tough picture to represent marketing-wise in terms of letting people know what the story was," said Rory Bruer, Sony's head of distribution. "It felt like going slower with the picture would give audiences a chance to kind of discover the story for themselves."
"The Return of the King" is about to pass the total $314.8 million domestic gross of the fantasy trilogy's first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring." The final film also is expected to top the $341.7 million haul of the middle chapter, "The Two Towers."
The serial-killer drama "Monster," which has earned Academy Award buzz for star Charlize Theron, did well expanding into wider release. The film, based on the life of executed murderer Aileen Wuornos, took in $865,160 in 82 theaters for a strong $10,551 average.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released today.
1. "Big Fish," $14.5 million.
2. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," $14.1 million.
3. "Cheaper by the Dozen," $12 million.
4. "Something's Gotta Give," $8.2 million.
5. "Cold Mountain," $7.9 million.
6. "My Baby's Daddy," $7.8 million.
7. "Chasing Liberty," $6 million.
8. "Paycheck," $5.2 million.
9. "The Last Samurai," $4.53 million.
10. "Mona Lisa Smile," $4.5 million.