The tally for "Argo," directed by and starring Ben Affleck, topped the $9.4 million for new sci-fi drama "Cloud Atlas". Halloween-themed animated film "Hotel Transylvania" scared up $9.5 million from Friday through Sunday, narrowly edging "Cloud Atlas", studio estimates showed.
After two weeks in the No. 2 spot, "Argo" moved into the lead and lifted its domestic sales to $60.8 million through three weekends.
The movie, produced by Warner Bros. and GK Films for $44 million, tells the story of a mission to rescue U.S. government employees from Iran in 1979. The film has earned Oscar buzz after stellar reviews from critics and an "A+" grade from audiences polled by CinemaScore.
Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, attributed the film's jump to "great word-of-mouth", which he called "the best form of advertising".
"Cloud Atlas", also from Warner Bros., fell short of industry forecasts for a $13 million debut at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters. Fellman said the film did better in larger cities, but struggled in the South and Midwest.
The film, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, cost $100 million to make. Many in Hollywood thought the story, based on a philosophical novel by David Mitchell, was too complex to bring to the big screen.
The nearly three-hour film with six interweaving stories divided critics, with the harshest reviewers saying it would try audiences' patience with multiple storylines and century-hopping plots. The film's stars also shift characters. Hanks, for example, is a shady doctor in the 1840s, a nuclear scientist in the 1970s and a simple valley-dweller in the distant future.
But "Cloud Atlas" also drew praise as an ambitious and well-acted epic. Sixty-one percent of reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website recommended the film.
"Hotel Transylvania" set a record for a September film opening in North America when it opened on September 28, and has performed solidly since then.
In the family comedy, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man and other monsters gather for a party at a high-end resort operated by Dracula. Their celebration is disrupted when a boy discovers the hotel and falls in love with Dracula's daughter but must deal with her overprotective father.
The president of worldwide distribution for Sony Corp's Sony Pictures studio, Rory Bruer, wasn't entirely surprised that the weeks-old movie beat "Cloud Atlas", despite the latter movie's buzz.
"Anything at this point doesn't surprise me," Bruer said. "It's like an annuity that keeps on giving and giving."
Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst at Hollywood.com, said the Halloween weekend gave the film a boost, and is "still the number one choice for families" among the spooky seasonal films currently playing.
This weekend was fairly quiet at the box office in North America, which Dergarabedian attributed to Hurricane Sandy, a storm menacing the East Coast of the United States.
However, the new James Bond movie "Skyfall" whipped up a storm of its own overseas, taking $77.7 million in 25 countries. The latest installment of the British spy saga took the top spot in all 25 countries, broke the all-time Saturday attendance record in the United Kingdom, and was the biggest film opening there of 2012. It will open in the United States on November 9.
Rounding out the weekend's top five, low-budget horror sequel "Paranormal Activity 4" grossed $8.7 million at domestic theaters. "Silent Hill: Revelation 3D" and "Taken 2" tied for fifth place, each pulling in $8 million.
Two other new films failed to crack the top five.
New Halloween-themed comedy "Fun Size" brought in $4.1 million at domestic theaters, landing in tenth place. The $14 million production tells the story of a boy who goes missing among trick-or-treaters, sparking his teen sister's frantic search to find him before her mother comes home.
Sports drama "Chasing Mavericks" disappointed, failing to break the top ten. The movie stars Gerard Butler in the story of a surfer who tries to conquer one of the biggest waves on Earth.
"Silent Hill: Revelation 3D" was released by Open Road Films, a joint venture between theater owners Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Inc. Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc, released "Fun Size" and "Paranormal Activity 4".
"Chasing Mavericks" was distributed by News Corp's 20th Century Fox studio. Sony Corp's movie division released "Hotel Transylvania".
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Andrea Burzynski; Editing by Will Dunham and Dale Hudson)