'Gangster' bow a big plus for Uni, boxoffice coffers

First positive session in six weeks

Universal/Imagine's "American Gangster" throttled the domestic boxoffice during the weekend to open at No. 1 with $43.6 million.

DreamWorks/Paramount's animated feature "Bee Movie" also stung for $38 million in a second-place bow, while New Line's John Cusack-Amanda Peet starrer "Martian Child" debuted with $3.4 million in seventh place.

Lionsgate's "Saw IV" tumbled 67% week-over-week to gross $10.3 million for third place with a 10-day cume of $50.4 million. Disney's Steve Carell comedy "Dan in Real Life" was off a modest 33% in its sophomore session to gross $7.9 million and finish fourth with a $22.7 million cume.

In a limited bow, Warner Independent Pictures' documentary "Darfur Now," about war-torn Sudan, grossed $23,217 from two runs in New York and one in Los Angeles, a solid $7,739 per location. The Don Cheadle-starring docu expands this weekend to 20 runs in 12 additional markets.

Industrywide, the weekend represented good news for a town wracked by labor tensions, with the frame's $134.2 million in total grosses marking a 3% improvement over the same session last year. It was the first improved session after six successive weekends of year-over-year declines.

"Gangster" always looked to be the weekend's likeliest top finisher despite an R rating and a running time of two hours and 37 minutes, as prerelease tracking surveys showed moviegoers anxious to mob multiplexes.

Its opening was the biggest ever for Washington and Crowe but fell just short of being the best debut among films longer than 21/2 hours with restricted ratings. "Troy" (two hours, 43 minutes) still holds those bragging rights after unspooling in May 2004 with $46.9 million.

The Ridley Scott-directed "Gangster" did muscle past "Gladiator" (two hours, 35 minutes), which opened in May 2000 with $34.8 million for Crowe's previous best bow. Washington's previous best was with "Inside Man," which opened in March 2006 with $29 million.

"It's a great movie, and the timing was perfect to jump-start the business," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said of "Gangster's" opening. "Everything just worked. The picture was well done and well marketed, and it was placed in the market at a time when its adult audience could embrace it."

The PG-rated "Bee" was helped enormously by voice topliner and co-producer Jerry Seinfeld's tireless efforts stumping for the film on the talk show circuit.

But good luck to any future opener seeking similar promo traction if the strike by Hollywood writers continues to keep late-night programming in reruns for any length of time. Studios would need to spend more on media advertising to make up for those freebie stints by talent, who likely could make themselves unavailable for other promo labors in solidarity with the writers, studio executives said.

Elsewhere during the weekend, ThinkFilm's Sidney Lumet-helmed "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" added 41 playdates for a total of 43 and grossed $370,542, or a solid $8,617 per engagement, with a $484,770 cume.

Focus Features' Ang Lee-helmed "Lust, Caution" continued in 122 theaters but grossed just $333,532, a thin $2,734 per screen with a $3.4 million cume. That might not help efforts to sustain its market traction until potential award kudos can goose grosses.

By contrast, Warner Bros. execs still hope solid grosses in select markets will help sustain a market base for the George Clooney-toplined "Michael Clayton" into award season. The legal thriller shed 478 engagements on the weekend to play in 2,107 venues; it grossed $2.8 million in eighth place with a $33.1 million cume. But a thin per-venue average of $1,328 means "Clayton" probably will drop another few hundred engagements by Friday.