'Prestige' has b.o. magic

Conjures $14.8 mil; Eastwood's 'Flags' third

Buena Vista Pictures pulled one out of its hat for the weekend, earning a surprise first-place victory at the North American boxoffice with its period magic film "The Prestige," which captured $14.8 million. The Christopher Nolan-directed drama outgrossed the DreamWorks/ Warner Bros. Pictures co-production "Flags of Our Fathers," from director Clint Eastwood, by a solid margin, proving again that Eastwood audiences are not big opening-weekend moviegoers.

Buena Vista kept the surprises coming for the frame, earning an astounding $3.3 million for the 3-D reissue of "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas." And Warners' "The Departed" continues to outperform expectations, dropping just 28% in its third weekend in theaters. The frame's other new releases, 20th Century Fox's "Flicka" and Sony Pictures' "Marie Antoinette," performed in the single-digit range, well within expectations for both films.

Between the new wide releases and the hold from "Departed," the boxoffice top 12 was up an estimated 27% from the same period a year ago, when Universal Pictures' "Doom" was the top earner with $15.4 million. The top 12 grossed an estimated $88.9 million, compared with $70.2 million during the same period last year.

The disparity between the two top new releases came primarily from the makeup of their respective audiences. "Prestige," which stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians, drew a younger crowd that came out to both the early shows and the 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. screenings, driving up the movie's per-theater average to $6,496. "Prestige," which bowed in 2,281 theaters, also covered more multiplexes than "Flags," which debuted in 1,876 theaters.

"Flags," though it scored strongly with audiences, was unable to fill theaters for the later-timed shows, which left its per-theater average at $5,437 for a total cume of $10.2 million and the third-place spot overall. The R-rated film, distributed by Paramount Pictures, saw an opening that was more typical of an Eastwood-directed film rather than an epic war movie attracting a broad swath of audiences.

Buena Vista distribution president Chuck Viane chalked up "Prestige's" win to strong reviews and the boxoffice lure of its director. "You know that if you watch a Nolan film, you have to put your mind into it," he said. "If you add in Jackman, Bale, Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson, that answers a lot of it. That's real star power."

"Prestige" opened lower than Nolan's previous two films. It was a much smaller film than last year's "Batman Begins," which bowed at $48.7 million, and its two leads didn't have the star wattage of the Al Pacino-Robin Williams pairing that drove 2002's "Insomnia" to an opening of $20.9 million. According to review compiler RottenTomatoes.com, "Prestige" and "Flags" both scored a 74% positive rating with critics, which again suggests that audience makeup was the main differentiator.

Although industry expectations for "Flags" were higher than its $10.2 million gross, Rob Moore, president of marketing, distribution and worldwide operations at Paramount, said the company always assumed the film would open in the range it did. "We're very happy with the critical response to the movie, and the word-of-mouth is excellent," Moore said. "Eastwood appeals to a different audience, and how his films play out is an anomaly."

Moore is expecting the film, which earned an A- from audience pollster Cinemascore, to play in typical fashion for an Eastwood movie. When "Million Dollar Baby" first expanded wide in January 2005 to 2,010 theaters, it grossed $12.3 million, and when "Mystic River" opened in 1,467 theaters in October 2003, it grossed $10.4 million. Moore noted that both films ended up grossing nine times that wide-opening number.

If the formula stays true for "Flags," the film would top out at $91 million. That number, though, is sure to be affected by how the movie — which stars Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach and Barry Pepper — performs during awards season. The challenge for Paramount's marketing team is attracting younger audiences.

Women were the prime audience for "Flicka," Fox's coming-of-age drama starring Alison Lohman as a rebellious girl who tries to tame a wild mustang. Based on the novel "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara, the PG-rated film, directed by Michael Mayer and featuring Tim McGraw and Maria Bello, made an estimated $7.7 million, tying for fifth place with Sony's "The Grudge 2," which fell a steep 63% in its sophomore session. "Flicka," budgeted in the low-teens according to Fox, drew in mostly families, mothers and daughters.

Sony's "Marie Antoinette," from director Sofia Coppola, was the other new release of the frame, grossing an estimated $5.3 million for an eighth-place bow. Opening lower than expected, the period drama centering on France's iconic queen (Kirsten Dunst) generated a solid per-screen average of $6,170 as it was released in only 859 theaters. The PG-13 film's hold will determine its boxoffice fate.

Buena Vista's 3-D release of "Nightmare Before Christmas" not only lured in $3.3 million but also broke the house record at Disney's El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood that had been held by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." The 75-minute animated film grossed $291,000 at the historic venue.

In limited release, Sony bowed TriStar's dysfunctional family drama "Running With Scissors" on eight screens. The R-rated film grossed $28,125 per screen for a three-day cume of $225,000. With strong marks for Annette Bening's performance but otherwise middling reviews, the film from writer-director Ryan Murphy (TV's "Nip/Tuck") clearly benefited from an all-star cast and the popularity of Augusten Burroughs' memoir on which it is based. "Scissors" also stars Evan Rachel Wood, Joseph Cross, Joseph Fiennes, Jill Clayburgh, Alec Baldwin and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The other new limited release, "Sleeping Dogs Lie" from Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions, earned an estimated $10,800 on six screens. The R-rated film from comedian-director Bob Goldthwait grossed a weak per-screen take of $1,800.

Warner Independent Pictures' "Infamous" continued its free fall in its second week in release. The film earned $173,600 on 175 screens for a per-screen of $992. Dropping 60%, it has now grossed $809,249. The indie subsidiary has a bit more luck with Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep." The film earned an additional $309,000 on 213 screens, bringing its four-week cume to $4 million.

Miramax's "The Queen" continued to perform well in its fourth weekend in release. The PG-13 film, now on 99 screens, grossed an additional $1.5 million and has earned an estimated $3.8 million.

New Line Cinema's "Little Children" grossed $259,000 on five screens. In its third weekend in limited release, the R-rated drama has earned $529,382.

For the week ending Oct. 19, the total boxoffice revenue was $145.7 million, up almost 26% compared with the $115.7 million accounted for during the same weekend last year. Year-to-date, the total boxoffice stands at $7.32 billion, up more than 6% over 2005's $6.85 billion. Estimated admissions are up more than 4% over 2005.