‘The Master’ smashes per-screen record

This film image released by The Weinstein Company shows Joaquin Phoenix, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a scene from “The Master.”

LOS ANGELES — Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult drama “The Master” commanded a huge following in its opening weekend, smashing records on just a handful of screens.

The Weinstein Co. release made $729,745 in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a record-setting per-screen average of $145,949, according to Sunday studio estimates. The hugely anticipated film, which just won several of the top awards at the Venice Film Festival and will open in more cities in upcoming weeks, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix as his wayward protege.

The No. 1 film at the box office was “Resident Evil: Retribution,” which took in an estimated $21.1 million in its debut. This is the fifth film in the Sony Screen Gems action franchise, starring Milla Jovovich.

That topped the 3-D re-release of the Disney Pixar animated favorite “Finding Nemo,” which opened in second place with $17.5 million.

The 3-D “Resident Evil: Retribution” was directed by Jovovich’s husband, Paul W.S. Anderson, who has made three of the five films. It features the actress once again as the warrior Alice, the last hope for the human race as an evil corporation unleashes a deadly virus that creates more flesh-eating undead on a worldwide scale.

The re-do of “Finding Nemo” follows in a recent tradition of Disney converting its classic animated movies into 3-D for a whole new audience.

Among the other new movies this weekend, “Arbitrage” opened in 12th place in limited release with nearly $2.1 million. Richard Gere stars as a hedge-fund billion juggling scandals that could destroy him personally and professionally.

The huge opening for “The Master” beats the per-screen-average record for a live-action feature debut set earlier this year by Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which made $522,996 when it opened on four screens in May for an average of $130,749.