"The Help" stayed on top of the box office Friday with another $4 million or so, but that was far less than was expected before Hurricane Irene closed theaters and sent moviegoers looking for shelter up and down the eastern seaboard.  The storm is effectively crashing the debuts of new releases "Columbiana," "Our Idiot Brother" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."

Three studios were reminded of a major lesson in the movie business today: no matter how well you plan your marketing and publicity campaign you just can't control the weather.  Going into the weekend, "Colombiana," "Our Idiot Brother" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" were expected to each gross between $10-14 million. After the onset of Hurricane Irene on the Eastern seaboard, each new release will be lucky to gross half that.

Hurricanes are a regular summer concern for most of the gulf coast, Florida and the Carolinas.  However, they brutal storms rarely find themselves causing evacuations and emergency storm preparations in major Metropolitan areas of the country such as New York City.  The concern over the storm has been so strong that major theater chains such as AMC Entertainment and Clearview Cinemas have closed their New York and New Jersey area theaters. Along with Southern California, the Northeast is one of the biggest moviegoing areas in the world. So, when a storm like Irene affects those areas, Hollywood gets hit too.

That being said, fine weather in the rest of the country kept "The Help" in the top spot with $4 million.  With $86 million so far, the DreamWorks hit should cross the $100 million mark over the Labor Day weekend.

Among new releases, "Colombiana" grossed around $4 million, "Our Idiot Brother" found $2.5 million and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" scared up $3 million.  Because of the effect of Irene on Saturday night and Sunday's ticket sales it's impossible to properly estimate how each film will perform over the 3-day.  

Look for an update on the weekend's box office estimates tomorrow on HitFix.