LOS ANGELES-- After three weeks as reigning box office champion, Lee Daniels' The Butler stepped down this weekend, surrendering the post to Vin Diesel.
Diesel's sci-fi sequel Riddick captured the first weekend of Hollywood's fall season, claiming $18.7 million, according to studio estimates from box office trackers Hollywood.com.
The opening met most analysts' expectations, though the weekend didn't carry much momentum from the lucrative summer season, which ended with a record $4.7 billion in ticket sales.
Still, Riddick managed to win over enough critics and fans to supplant Butler, which marks the only film of 2013 to claim the weekend box office crown for three consecutive weeks.
Riddick earned recommendations from 59% of the nation's critics - mediocre, though not bad for a Diesel film - while 71% of fans gave the film a thumbs-up, according to survey site Rottentomatoes.com.
While it had been nearly a decade since Diesel returned to the outer-space saga - Pitch Black did $39 million in 2000, while The Chronicles of Riddick captured $58 million in 2004 - the actor's rising status will likely make the $38 million Riddick profitable by the end of the month, analysts say.
"After a few quiet years, Diesel's star has gone up again recently, thanks to the enormous success of the last three Fast & Furious movies," says Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo.
Subers says Diesel's name alone "has particularly strong drawing power among males and Hispanics."
Riddick flourished despite opening in early fall, a veritable wasteland for many films. "Kids are going back to school, football returns with a vengeance - stealing away time and attention of millions - and so studios refrain from releasing big movies," says Gitesh Pandya, analyst for Boxofficeguru.com.
With "nothing in the current top five being that compelling" for action-starved fanboys, Riddick proved irresistible. And despite only a so-so reaction from critics, "reviews have been more than good enough for this type of franchise flick."
It was plenty to topple Butler, which took second with $8.9 million.
The Spanish-language comedy Instructions Not Included took third with $8.1 million, followed by the raunchy comedy We're the Millers with $7.9 million.
The animated comedy Planes rounded out the top five with $4.3 million. Final figures are due Monday.
Ticket sales are neck-and-neck with last year's pace, down just 1% for the year, says Hollywood.com