By Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a civil rights drama starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, surpassed expectations and easily won the weekend box office battle, debuting with $25 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales through Sunday.
Jennifer Aniston comedy "We're the Millers" finished in the No. 2 slot, earning $17.8 million in its second weekend, according to studio estimates. Last weekend's box office leader, Matt Damon sci-fi thriller "Elysium," fell to third place with $13.6 million.
"Kick-Ass 2," a comedy sequel about a pair of teenage crime-fighting superheroes, languished in fourth place with $13.6 million in its first three days.
Ahead of the weekend, box office forecasters had predicted a close race between "The Butler" and "Kick-Ass," with projections for each running as high as $20 million-plus.
But audiences gravitated to "The Butler," a critically praised drama directed by Lee Daniels and featuring talk show host Winfrey in her first acting role in 15 years.
The film is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served as a White House butler to eight U.S. presidents. Whitaker plays the butler opposite Winfrey as his chain-smoking, hard-drinking wife, Gloria.
Entertainment mogul Winfrey promoted the film to her large fan base through media interviews and on her cable network, OWN. Seventy-two percent of "Butler" ticket buyers said Winfrey's role increased their interest in the film, according to a poll on the Fandango movie website.
Both Winfrey and Whitaker won applause from critics, with 73 percent recommending "The Butler" in reviews collected on the Rotten Tomatoes website.
"We expected it to do well. We did not expect it to do this well," said Erik Lomis, distribution president for the Weinstein Co, the privately held company that distributed the movie.
Weinstein decided to release the film in August to capitalize on a lack of adult dramas in theaters, Lomis said. "That audience is underserved at this time of year," he noted.
The film had a modest budget of around $25 million, financed by 28 investors, and Lomis said he expected the audience, which was 60 percent female and more than three-quarters over age 35, "will broaden out. Word of mouth is really strong."
"Kick-Ass 2" stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as costumed teenage hero Kick-Ass and Chloe Moretz as his sidekick known as Hit Girl. Jim Carrey, who criticized the movie's violence after filming was completed, plays Colonel Stars and Stripes, an ex-soldier leading a band of amateur masked vigilantes.
The film was produced by Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures and independently financed with a budget of $28 million. The sequel's opening weekend sales lagged behind the first "Kick-Ass," which debuted with $19.8 million at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters in April 2010.
Nikki Rocco, president of Universal's distribution unit, said the sequel was a low-risk bet.
"I hope that whenever there are misses, they are like this one," Rocco said. "In this case, it's a very minimum risk." "Kick-Ass 2" added another $6.3 million in international ticket sales.
Rounding out the top of the charts, Walt Disney Co animated movie "Planes" earned the No. 5 slot with $13.1 million in its second weekend.
"Jobs," a new drama starring Ashton Kutcher as legendary Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs, pulled in $6.7 million for seventh place. The film, which chronicles 30 years of the late tech and computer entrepreneur's life, was produced for $8.5 million, according to the Box Office Mojo website.
Open Road Films, a joint venture between theater owners Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Inc, distributed "Jobs."
Corporate espionage thriller "Paranoia," starring Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth, debuted in the No. 13 spot with $3.5 million. Relativity Media acquired U.S. marketing rights for "Paranoia" and eOne distributed the movie in Canada.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Eric Beech)