No. 1 with a bullet: 'Gangster'
EmptyUniversal/Imagine's "American Gangster" gunned down the competition to capture the top spot at the domestic boxoffice with an estimated $46.3 million in opening loot.
DreamWorks/Paramount's animated feature "Bee Movie" also generated significant buzz with its own honey of an opening, gathering $39.1 million in second place.
New Line's John Cusack-Amanda Peet starrer "Martian Child" bowed with $3.7 million in seventh place.
Lionsgate's "Saw IV" got chopped up by the new entrants and fell 65% in its second weekend to gross $11 million in third place with a $51.1 million cume. But Disney's Steve Carell comedy "Dan in Real Life" slid just 29% in its sophomore session to gross $8.1 million and finish fourth with a cume of almost $23 million.
In a limited bow, Warner Independent's documentary about war-torn Sudan "Darfur Now" grossed $24,000 from two runs in New York and one in L.A., or a solid $8,000 per location. The Don Cheadle-starring docu expands to 20 runs in 12 additional markets next weekend.
Industrywide, the weekend represented some needed good news for a town wracked by labor tensions, with the frame's $140 million in total grosses marking an 8% improvement over the same session last year. It was the first improved session after six successive weekends of year-over-year declines.
Year-to-date, boxoffice is still running 6% ahead of the same period of 2006 at a total of $7.85 billion. But fall grosses are off 4% compared with a year ago, at $966.8 million.
"Gangster" always looked to be the weekend's likeliest top finisher, despite an R rating and a running time two hours and 37 minutes, as pre-release tracking surveys showed moviegoers anxious to mob movieplexes.
Its opening was the biggest ever for Washington and Crowe but fell just short of being the best debut among pics over 2 1/2 hours with restricted ratings. "Troy" (2:43) still holds those bragging rights after unspooling with $46.9 million in May 2004.
"Gangster" did muscle past "Gladiator" (2:35), 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 the "Gangster" opening.
"Everything just worked," Rocco said. "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."
Audiences for the Ridley Scott-directed pic were 53% female, with 60% of patrons 30 or older. Black filmgoers accounted for 36% of tickets sold.
"Bee" always looked a bit hampered by cheaper kid admissions in going toe-to-toe with "Gangster" for the frame laurels, and ho-hum reviews stung a bit, as well. But execs were hoping to gross at least $35 million from the "Bee" bow, so there was nothing but elation at the pic's opening at the high-end of pre-release expectations.
"I feel like the holiday playing season is starting, and the boxoffice has come back with two strong movies," said Anne Globe, head of marketing at DreamWorks Animation. "We feel very positive about (the bow for 'Bee'), and it looks it will have good playability into the holiday season."
The PG-rated pic was helped enormously by voice topliner and co-producer Jerry Seinfeld's tireless efforts stumping for the pic on the chat-show circuit.
But good luck to any future opener seeking similar promo traction, if a strike by Hollywood writers should kill late-night programming 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 also could make themselves unavailable for other promo labors in solidarity with the writers, studio execs say.
"Bee" audiences were 60% female, with 55% of patrons under age 25.
Audiences for "Martian Child" were family-oriented, but a New Line spokeswoman said demographic details were not immediately available.
New Line hasn't had much market success of late, after disappointing previous fall openers including "Shoot 'Em Up" and "Mr. Woodcock." But execs hope "The Golden Compass" can point New Line in a more lucrative direction when the high-profile family fantasy and possible franchise-starter debuts on Dec. 7.
Elsewhere this weekend, ThinkFilm's Sidney Lumet-helmed "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" added 41 playdates for a total of 43 and grossed $402,000, or a solid $9,350 per engagement, with a $516,230 cume.
Focus Features' Ang Lee-helmed "Lust, Caution" continued in 122 theaters but grossed just $332,973, a so-so $2,729 per screen. That might not help efforts to sustain its market traction until potential award kudos can goose grosses.
Focus has already stopped tracking estimated weekend grosses for "Reservation Road," the Mark Ruffalo-Joaquin Phoenix drama that opened weakly two weeks earlier among a surplus of adult-oriented titles. Other star-driven art house films have been similarly caught in fall's competitive crush, including Warner Independent's Tommy Lee Jones-toplined "In the Valley of Elah" and New Line's Reese Witherspoon-Jake Gyllenhaal starrer "Rendition."
By contrast, Warner Bros.' execs still hope solid grosses in select markets will help sustain a market base for George Clooney-toplined "Michael Clayton" into award season. The legal thriller shed 478 engagements this weekend to play in 2,107 venues and grossed $2.9 million in eighth place with a $33.2 million cume. But a thin per-venue average of $1,376 means "Clayton" will probably drop another few hundred engagements by Friday.
Warners' Brad Pitt starrer "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" was in 212 theaters — 82 fewer than last weekend — and grossed $233,000. That made for a wobbly $1,099 per location with a disappointing cume of just $3.3 million.