LOS ANGELES — After three weeks atop the box office, "The Hobbit" has been taken down by Liam Neeson.
"Taken 3" nabbed the top spot at the weekend box office in North America with $40.4 million, according to studio estimates Sunday. The third installment of the 20th Century Fox thriller series stars Neeson as a vengeance-seeking retired CIA operative with "a very particular set of skills."
The original "Taken," which also features Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen, debuted in 2009 with $24.7 million, while "Taken 2" launched in 2012 with $49.5 million. "Taken 3" also earned $41 million in 36 international territories this weekend.
"For Neeson to be at this stage in his career and be considered one of the premier action heroes is certainly unexpected, but it's really cool and lucrative," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at box-office tracker Rentrak. "I don't think Neeson expected back in '09 that 'Taken' would take off the way it has. It's really enhanced his box-office appeal."
"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" slid to fourth place with $9.4 million following three straight weeks in first place. The total domestic take for filmmaker Peter Jackson's Middle-earth finale now stands at $236.5 million. "The Hobbit" also earned $21.8 million internationally this weekend, pushing the worldwide total to $545.3 million.
"Into the Woods" milked $9.7 million in third place in its third week at the box office, bringing the total haul of Disney's Broadway musical adaptation to $105.3 million.
With the Golden Globes kicking off Sunday night and Academy Awards nominations looming Thursday morning, several trophy seekers expanded into more theaters this weekend.
Paramount's civil rights drama "Selma" moved from 22 to 2,179 theaters, arriving in second place behind "Taken 3" with $11.2 million. The film chronicles the historic 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and stars David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"With the Globes tonight, no matter what happens, there's nothing better than having your clips running and people having conversations about your movie because it creates a big awareness," said Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of worldwide distribution. "Then, we have Martin Luther King weekend next weekend. I think we're in great shape to just play and play and play."
Other possible awards-season hopefuls that moved into more theaters this weekend included the Louis Zamperini biopic "Unbroken," the Alan Turing biopic "The Imitation Game" and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy mystery "Inherent Vice."
"There are a lot of titles out there in the mix," Dergarabedian said. "It's all about timing with these awards-season contenders. With the Globes tonight and the Academy Award nominations Thursday, it's no accident they're expanding. It's completely calculated, but it's sort of anyone's game to win because there are so many great contenders."
"American Sniper," which stars Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, bagged $555,000 from just four theaters. Warner Bros. plans to greatly expand the war drama's scope on Friday.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Rentrak. Where available, the latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "Taken 3," $40.4 million ($41 million international).
2. "Selma," $11.2 million.
3. "Into the Woods," $9.7 million ($7.6. million international).
4. "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," $9.4 million ($21.8 million international).
5. "Unbroken," $8.7 million ($5.7 million international).
6. "The Imitation Game," $7.6 million ($5.5 international).
7. "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," $6.7 million ($46.2 million international).
8. "Annie," $4.9 million ($14 million international).
9. "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death," $4.8 million ($1.5 million international).
10. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1," $3.7 million.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada), according to Rentrak:
1. "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," $46.2 million.
2. "Taken 3," $41 million.
3. "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," $21.8 million.
4 (tie). "Exodus: Gods and Kings," $15 million.
4 (tie). "Miss Granny," $15 million.
5. "Big Hero 6," $12.6 million.
6. "Ode to My Father," $9.5 million.
7. "Penguins of Madagascar," $9 million.
8. "Seventh Son," $8.1 million.
9. "Into the Woods," $7.6 million.
10. "The Taking of Tiger Mountain," $7.5 million.
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by 21st Century Fox; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang.