'Burn After Reading' tops boxoffice

'Family That Preys,' 'Righteous Kill' round out the top three

The Coen brothers' dark comedy "Burn After Reading" from Focus Features and Working Title lit up the domestic boxoffice during the weekend, as its estimated $19.4 million debut showed pre-release expectations to be seriously undercooked.

"Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys" from Lionsgate bowed with $18 million in second place in a competitive weekend that seemed to rouse the previously somnolent fall marketplace. Overture's cop thriller "Righteous Kill," featuring the rare pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, had been a favorite to top the frame but still opened righteously enough with $16.5 million.

Even Picturehouse's "The Women" -- a critically dismissed remake of the 1939 ensemble comedy and the specialty distributor's final film before shutting down -- bowed with a better-than-expected $10.1 million in fourth place.

Less positively, a second weekend for last weekend's No. 1 film, "Bangkok Dangerous" from Lionsgate, saw the Nicolas Cage starrer drop a big 69% to $2.4 million in eighth place and a 10-day cume of $12.5 million.

In a limited bow, Warners unspooled Allan Ball's edgy coming-of-age drama "Towelhead" in four theaters -- two in New York and two in Los Angeles -- to gross $53,000, or an auspicious $13,166 per venue. "Towelhead" is set to unspool in 11 additional markets on Friday for a total of 19 engagements.

Industrywide, the weekend's $101 million in collective boxoffice represented a 28% improvement from the same frame a year ago, data service Nielsen EDI said.

The flashy returns from the four indie films topping this week's rankings contrast sharply with grosses from the threadbare session a week earlier that launched the fall boxoffice season. Seasonal tracking is now 2% ahead of the same portion of autumn 2007 at $208 million, though 2008 is down 1% on a year-to-date basis at $7.01 billion.

Distributors were enthused that the latest weekend seemed solid evidence that even early fall can be used to launch quality films. That's something from which studios have shied away, historically.

"You get what you put in," beamed a jubilant Jack Foley, Focus' distribution president.

The "Burn" bow was the biggest ever for Focus and for Joel and Ethan Coen. Previous best was 2002's "Traffic," which bowed at $15.5 million on its way to a $124.1 million domestic cume.

"Clearly, it's a smash, and it's obviously a reflection of how much more commercial the Coens have grown," Foley said.

Their first release since last year's best picture Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men," "Burn" stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand. Reviews have been mostly favorable, but critics have underscored the fact that the film is less of an awards contender than "No Country."

"No Country" posted a limited bow of $1.2 million last November before tallying $7.8 million from its first frame in wide release later that month; the James Brolin-Javier Bardem starrer registered $74.3 million overall domestically. The Coens' 2004 Tom Hanks starrer "The Ladykillers" debuted with $12.6 million and grossed $39.8 million domestically.

Working Title toppers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner produced "Burn" with the Coens, who also co-helmed.

"Burn" audiences skewed 51% female, with 61% of patrons aged 25 and older.

The market debut for "Family" proved fairly typical for Perry, who wrote, helmed and starred in the film. Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates co-starred. "Family" skewed urban, older and female, as usual. Black filmgoers represented 82% of patrons, females 79% and moviegoers 25 and older comprised 82% of audiences.

"It's another great opening for Tyler Perry," Lionsgate distribution president Steve Rothenberg said. "He's now had five out of his six movies open up at No. 1 or No. 2 at the boxoffice."

Perry's previous film, "Meet the Browns," opened with $20.1 million last October en route to a domestic haul of $42 million.

Directed by Jon Avnet ("88 Minutes"), "Kill" drew audiences comprised 51% of females, with 69% of patrons 25 and older.

"The opening was very solid, and we're happy with the results," Overture distribution topper Kyle Davies said.

Overture acquired "Kill" for $12 million from Millennium/NuImage.

"Women" drew audiences that were 75% female, with 60% of patrons 25 or older.

Picturehouse president Bob Berney noted the opening represented -- ironically -- a new high for the doomed Warners specialty unit.

"It's nice going out with a bang," he said.

Berney said he's working on a new film venture but declined to discuss details.

Looking ahead, another four films bow in wide release this weekend. Those include the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Girl," with Dane Cook and Kate Hudson; "Igor," an animated family feature from MGM starring John Cusack; "Ghost Town," DreamWorks/Paramount's comic fantasy, starring Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear; and Sony's Samuel L. Jackson thriller "Lakeview Terrace."