LOS ANGELES — The fright flick “The Devil Inside” scared up a monstrous $34.5 million opening weekend to help Hollywood exorcise its recent box-office demons, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The surprise hit from Paramount Pictures debuted well above industry expectations as horror fans crowded theaters for the low-budget tale about exorcists trying to free a woman possessed by evil spirits.
Between “The Devil Inside” and solid results for holdover films, Hollywood’s business soared over the first full weekend of 2012 after a sluggish holiday season that ended a ho-hum year at the box office.
Overall domestic revenues totaled $144 million, up 29 percent from the same weekend last year, when “True Grit” led with $14.6 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
Paramount already is well into profit with “The Devil Inside,” an independently produced movie that the studio bought for $1 million. It’s the latest such low-budgeted horror acquisition for the studio, which bought “Paranormal Activity” cheaply and turned it into a $100 million sensation that was followed by two hit sequels.
Like “Paranormal Activity” and another Paramount hit released in January, “Cloverfield,” “The Devil Inside” is a fictional tale shot in a mock documentary style.
According to Paramount, 59 percent of viewers for “The Devil Inside” were under 25 and 85 percent were under 35, prime viewers for Hollywood who had not turned up in their usual numbers for much of last year.
With a sales campaign that bypassed traditional newspaper and TV advertising in favor of online teasers and cryptic marketing, Paramount managed to intrigue young adults who have not been all that interested in the rush of family films and Academy Awards contenders that crowded into theaters over the holidays.
“The Devil Inside” was the only new wide release of the weekend after the holiday crush, historically a good time for something different to sneak in and become an unexpected hit, said Don Harris, head of distribution for Paramount.
“For that under-25, under-35 audience that’s looking for something else, that first weekend in January has always been a great weekend to release a movie,” Harris said. “When we saw that weekend open, we took it.”
“The Devil Inside” bumped another Paramount hit, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” out of the top spot after two weekends at No. 1. “Ghost Protocol” slipped to No. 2 with $20.5 million, raising its domestic total to $170.2 million.
Just a day before “The Devil Inside” opened Friday, industry analysts had expected “Ghost Protocol” would remain No. 1 this weekend. The most optimistic forecasters figured “The Devil Inside” might manage $15 million, less than half the business it actually did.
“This one caught everyone looking, but the devil got his due,” Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “It’s just very difficult to track the horror fan base, no question about it.”
“The Devil Inside” is following the pattern of many horror movies, which pack in crowds on opening day then tumble quickly after that. With $16.85 million on Friday, “The Devil Inside” did nearly half of its business in the first day, with revenues falling to $11.75 million Saturday and an estimated $5.9 million Sunday.
Critics trashed “The Devil Inside,” and even the fans who came out to see it gave it mixed to bad reviews. Paramount reported that 16 percent of the audience gave it an A grade, while 19 percent gave it an F. Two-thirds of the audience gave the movie a grade of C or lower.