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Sacha Baron Cohen may just be the reigning king of comedy judging by this weekend’s returns at the North American boxoffice. 20th Century Fox’s “Borat,” starring Baron Cohen as Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev on a road trip across America, reaped an unbelievable $26.4 million. Opening in only 837 theaters, the R-rated rogue comedy generated a per-theater average of an estimated $31,511.
The film far outpaced its competition, including the two family films that battled for the second-place spot. Buena Vista Pictures’ “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause” eked out the No. 2 position, earning an estimated $20 million, far below the $29 million earned by the second “Clause” film on its opening weekend in 2002.
The Tim Allen starrer was up against stiff competition with Paramount Pictures’ release of DreamWorks Animation’s “Flushed Away.” The first CG- animated film from Aardman Animations, revolving around rodents flushed into the London sewers, generated an estimated $19.1 million to finish third overall.
The top three grossers weren’t powerful enough to eclipse the year-ago boxoffice take, marking the first down frame for the top 12 films after five consecutive up weekends. The top 12 for the frame grossed an estimated $116.1 million, down close to 3% compared with $119.6 million last year, when Buena Vista’s “Chicken Little” bowed to $40 million.
There was strong business among the weekend’s holdovers. Although Lionsgate’s “Saw III” fell 54% to an estimated $15.5 million — a more severe drop then the previous films in the franchise — it still hung on to fourth place. Additionally, Warner Bros. Pictures’ “The Departed,” the R-rated crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese, generated another $8 million, crossing the $100 million mark with an estimated $102.3 million in its fifth weekend. By today, it will top Scorsese’s all-time gross of $102.6 million, for 2004’s “The Aviator.”
Finishing at No. 6 for the frame is Buena Vista’s “The Prestige,” off a remarkable 19% in its third weekend. The Christopher Nolan period drama earned an estimated $7.8 million to bring its three-week cume to $39.4 million.
Paramount’s “Flags of Our Fathers” is not carrying the same weight. The Clint Eastwood-directed World War II movie fell 29% despite adding 185 theaters to its run. The R-rated film earned another $4.5 million to bring its three-week gross to a weak $26.6 million. The film was expected to hold strongly, but the studio remains hopeful that it will settle into a strong run in about 1,500 theaters for the remainder of the year.
Miramax Films’ “The Queen” had a strong showing in its sixth weekend. Breaking into the top 10 on 387 theaters, the film earned an estimated $3 million for a per-theater average of $7,777. The Stephen Frears-directed film, starring Helen Mirren, has grossed $10.1 million to date.
But the real story for the weekend is “Borat,” directed by Larry Charles. The film has received plenty of press attention, from Baron Cohen’s publicity stunts in cities as far-flung as Cannes, Toronto and Washington to the Internet blogosphere, which has run the gamut of opinions — from championing the film in its early days to reviling Fox’s marketing and distribution strategy. Even after the film generated one of the highest per-screen averages on an 800-theater rollout in recent memory, many industry insiders still questioned Fox’s strategy, with some speculating that the narrow bow left money on the table.
The studio scaled back the film’s release after tracking data suggested weak awareness. The result was a weekend that saw sold-out shows and what Fox distribution chief Bruce Snyder called “parties in the theaters.”
He added: “Everything we set out to do worked so wonderfully. We are now set up perfectly to spread to (this) weekend. The playability of this film is astounding. There is so much laughter, it’s spilling out into the hallways. The film is playing like a concert.”
Fox production president Hutch Parker echoed the sentiment.
“We had a movie that’s not easy to explain,” he said. “It’s a revolutionary comedy, and we knew the movie itself was the best way to sell it. Seeing it in a full house is an amazing experience. We believed so fully in its playability and it being talked about that we were willing to start off narrow.”
Looking to its second weekend, the question will be how much the “Borat” phenomenon can grow. With humor both low-brow and bracingly satirical, the movie could polarize some audiences, though that is not what the producers found during preview screenings.
“People have taken offense to certain aspects of the movie, but the wide majority of audiences are smart enough to know he’s depicting a backwards view in a very smart way,” producer Jay Roach said. “He’s also able to hold up a satirical mirror to us to expose our prejudices, and people get that.”
“We were glad (Fox) went with the 800,” Roach said. “This film plays best in full theaters so people can experience the mass hysteria. Watching the audience from the back of the theater is like watching people on a roller-coaster ride, thrashing around, howling and screaming.”
Fox plans on expanding to film this weekend to between 2,200-2,500 runs.
Disney’s Buena Vista arm and DreamWorks’ distributor Paramount took a chance by loading their family films on the same weekend. While “Clause 3” probably could have approximated the business done by “Clause 2” if it hadn’t had the competition, Disney was confident that sticking with the date was the right choice given the approaching holiday season.
“The family audience was given two choices this weekend, and it was great for both of us,” Buena Vista distribution president Chuck Viane said. “When you start this early, we know for the next month that we’re both golden. We have kids out on Tuesday for the election, more kids out Friday for Veterans Day, and then our third week in release will be Thanksgiving, when families love to go to the movies.”
That could mean strong business for “Flushed,” as well. The movie marked an uptick for the opening of an Aardman film, though perhaps not as big as it could have been considering the competition.
The British animation studio’s last film, the stop-motion “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” opened last year to what was considered a disappointing $16 million before going on to generate $56 million. Aardman’s previous feature-length claymation film, “Chicken Run,” bowed in 2000 to $17.5 million but went on to earn $106.7 million. How “Flushed” will fare is far from certain considering that Warners’ animated “Happy Feet” enters the market in two weeks.
In limited release, Sony Pictures Classics bowed Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” on five screens in Los Angeles and New York. The critically acclaimed film starring Penelope Cruz opened to $202,243 for a per-screen average of $40,449. The studio will keep the film bicoastal until Nov. 22, when it will expand to additional markets.
Paramount Vantage expanded Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” to 35 locations for an additional $918,464 and a per-screen average of $26,464. The film’s two-week cume stands at an estimated $1.5 million, and it will expand wide this weekend to 1,200 locations.
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