Far exceeding analysts’ expectations, Lionsgate’s The Last Exorcism topped the weekend box office with $21.3 million, according to studio estimates. The film, which cost just $2 million to produce (the studio reportedly acquired it for half that amount), marks the second hit of the month for Lionsgate, whose corporate parent, Lions Gate Entertainment, has been fending off a relentless takeover effort by activist investor Carl Icahn, who has demanded that the company withdraw from the risky movie business and focus its efforts on television instead. After spending two weekends at the top of the box office, Lionsgate’s earlier hit this month, the Sylvester Stallone action flick, The Expendables, dropped 44 percent to third place with $9.5 million, to bring its gross to $82 million. Meanwhile, another low-budget entrant, Takers, from Sony/Screen Gems, opened in second place with $21 million, just a tad behind Exorcism. The estimates were so close that the top two finishers could reverse their finish rankings when final results are announced on Monday. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend was the miserable performance of 20th Century Fox’s Avatar, which returned to theaters as a special edition. Despite a strong marketing campaign that focused on the addition of about nine minutes of scenes that did not appear in the original, and despite the fact that it screened only in 3D and IMAX theaters, Avatar earned only about $4 million and failed even to crack the top ten.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Last Exorcism, $21.3 million; 2. Takers, $21 million; 3. The Expendables, $9.5 million; 4. Eat Pray Love, $7 million; 5. The Other Guys, $6.6 million; 6. Vampires Suck, $5.3 million; 7. Inception, $5.1 million; 8. Nanny McPhee Returns, $4.74 million; 9. The Switch, $4.7 million; 10. Piranha 3D, $4.3 million.