Disney's 'Chihuahua' best of show at $29 mil

Disney's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" broke out of a crowded pack to take best of show at the weekend boxoffice.

The movie full of conversing canines — Drew Barrymore leads the voice cast as pampered pooch Chloe, who must fend for herself south of the border — took in an estimated $29 million, posting Disney's biggest October opening by easily surpassing the $22.1 million that "Ladder 49" grabbed in 2004.

With six wide releases jostling for attention, none of the other newcomers could fend off continuing strength on the part of DreamWorks/Paramount's thriller "Eagle Eye." The Shia LaBeouf starrer fell by just 39% in its second weekend as it collected an estimated $17.7 million to bring its domestic boxoffice cume to $54.6 million.

Of the other newcomers, Sony's teen-oriented "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, showed the most promise, securing the No. 3 spot with $12 million. Warners' Western "Appaloosa," expanding to 1,045 theaters in its third weekend, corralled $5 million, bringing its purse to $5.57 million.

Two ideologically driven movies squeezed into the bottom of the top 10. Vivendi Entertainment's "An American Carol," David Zucker's flag-waving, proudly right-wing comedy, secured the ninth-place berth with $3.8 million, while Liosgate's "Religulous," Bill Maher's skeptical lambasting of the world's religions, was right behind in 10th place with $3.5 million. However, because "Religulous" was playing in less than one-third the number of theaters that offered "Carol," it scored a much higher per-theater average, earning $6,972 to "Carol's" $2,234.

Relegated to also-ran status, Universal's "Flash of Genius," Miramax's "Blindness" and MGM's "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" all finished outside the top 10.

On the exclusive film front, Sony Pictures Classics' "Rachel Getting Married," the Anne Hathaway drama directed by Jonathan Demme, made a powerful first impression. Debuting in just nine theaters, it pulled in $302,934 for a per-theater average of $33,659.

With the exception of "Chihuahua," the audience was fragmented, but the balkanized boxoffice still made for a busy weekend at the North American multiplexes.

According to Nielsen EDI, the top 10 films' total haul of $91 million was up 11% over last weekend's, and it amounted to a 44% jump over the comparable weekend last year when the top-grossing movie, "The Game Plan," grossed $16.6 million.

"Chihuahua," directed by Raja Gosnell — who's demonstrated a knack for barking up to family audiences since he also helmed the two "Scooby-Doo" movies — handily commanded the attention of the kiddie set. Families comprised 70% of its audience, according to Disney, while unaccompanied couples represented 12% of the crowd and 11% were teens.

Although at one time Disney had contemplated making the PG-rated Mandeville Films/Smart Entertainment production a summer release, it ultimately opted for an October rollout in 3,215 theaters that should give it clear sailing until Disney's own "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" arrives on Oct. 24.

"We saw a void in the market," Disney distribution president Chuck Vianne said. "And in a weekend with seven new films, we were able to bring out a family comedy that everyone could go for."

The PG-13 "Nick," directed by Peter Sollett for Columbia and Mandate, made its stand by appealing to younger women: Its audience was 62% female and 55% under 21.

Its debut gross of $12 million was "a good start for us," Sony Pictures Releasing president Rory Bruer said. "Everyone who sees it, whether it's critics or audiences, loves it, and the chemistry between Michael and Kat couldn't be better."

"Appaloosa," directed by and starring Ed Harris, wasn't circumscribed by its Western setting as it expanded beyond its exclusive opening dates to the tune of $5 million. The Groundswell production, which Warners took over when it absorbed New Line, "did solid throughout North America, playing even in suburbs where you wouldn't expect a cowboy movie to do well," Warners distribution exec Jeff Goldstein said.

Although it played in more limited settings — it opened in just 502 theaters — the R-rated "Religulous," directed by Larry Charles, also played across the U.S. and Canada. "We handpicked theaters where previous documentaries we've released, like 'Sicko' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' did well," Lionsgate domestic distribution president Steve Rothenberg said. "To make it into the top 10, along with films that had 3,000-4,000 more prints, is an incredible accomplishment." The movie is expected to add another 75-100 theaters this weekend.

While partisan moviegoers may have been divided between "Religulous" and "Carol," both entered the top 10 behind the Christian-themed "Fireproof." The Goldwyn/IDP release from Sherwood Pictures — a ministry of the Georgia-based Sherwood Baptist Church — the faith-based portrait of a marriage starring Kirk Cameron took in $4.1 million from just 852 theaters in its second weekend. Falling by just 40%, it captured eighth place as its cume rose to $12.5 million.

The crowded field couldn't accomodate every film, though.

The PG-13 drama "Flash of Genius," the true story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, which stars Greg Kinnear and marks producer Marc Abraham's directorial debut, had to settle for 11th place. Financed by Spyglass, which also footed the P&A costs on the Universal relesae, it grossed just $2.3 million in 1,098 theaers.

Just below it in 12th position was Miramax's "Blindess," Fernando Meirelles' metaphoric study of a metropolis in collapse. The film, which stars Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, opened this year's Festival de Cannes, but despite that imprimateur, it grossed just $2 million in 1,690 theaters.

The R-rated "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," which MGM distributed for Autonomous Films, made even less of an impression. Robert B. Weide's comedy, based on a memoir by British journalist Toby Young, scraped together just $1.4 million.

The weekend registered one final landmark. Warners' "Journey to the Center of the Earth" became the 18th film this year to cross the $100 million mark. The movie, which opened back in July, is still playing in a handful of 3-D engagements, and its 3-D prints have accounted for 66% of the gross. (partialdiff)