'Saw' carves up big b.o.

Second sequel grabs franchise-best $34.3 mil

Thanks to its "Saw" franchise, Lionsgate continued its tradition of domination at the North American boxoffice on the weekend before Halloween. The third installment of the R-rated horror fest grossed an estimated $34.3 million during the weekend, a record for the series and the studio and practically a guarantee that Lionsgate will resurrect Jigsaw for another go-round.

The weekend's other new wide release didn't have the same luck. Focus Features' apartheid drama "Catch a Fire," from director Phillip Noyce, bowed to a meager $2.1 million and placed outside the top 10.

Paramount Vantage's "Babel" was clearly the limited-release winner for the weekend. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's R-rated, globe-trotting drama grossed $365,801 in seven theaters for an astounding per-screen average of $52,258.

Overall, the boxoffice appears to be up 2% compared with the same period last year, when three films opened wide instead of the two this frame. Last year's chart-topper was "Saw II," of course, which grossed $31.7 million. This weekend, the top 12 films grossed an estimated $89 million for the three-day frame, compared with $87 million last year at this time.

Among the holdovers, Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," which held on to the second spot, continues to impress. In its fourth weekend, the Martin Scorsese-directed drama dropped a slight 27% for an estimated gross of $9.8 million. The Leonardo DiCaprio/ Matt Damon starrer has earned an estimated $91.1 million after 23 days in theaters.

"Flags of Our Fathers," a DreamWorks/Warners co-production distributed by Paramount Pictures, didn't hold on as well, falling 38% during its sophomore session to earn $6.4 million. Paramount is encouraged that the World War II drama's boxoffice rose 50% from Friday to Saturday, but the weekend drop would have been steeper had the film not added 314 theaters to its total. With that number figured in, the drop is closer to mid-40%.

Buena Vista Pictures' "The Prestige" held on well in its second session, dropping 35% to conjure an additional $9.6 million. Moving from the top spot last weekend to third, the Christopher Nolan-directed magic movie has generated an estimated $28.8 million in 10 days.

Continuing to attract audiences in its fifth weekend, Sony Pictures' animated "Open Season" finished at No. 5 as it collected an estimated $6.1 million, bringing its gross-to-date to an estimated $77.4 million.

Also vying for the family audience, 20th Century Fox's "Flicka" fell 35%, slipping to sixth place; the horse movie with Tim McGraw and Alison Lohman grossed an additional $5 million for an estimated haul of $14.1 million.

Sony Pictures' "Marie Antoinette" suffered more severely, falling 47% in its second session in the same number of theaters (859) in which it opened. The PG-13 period film from director Sofia Coppola grossed $2.9 million; its 10-day cume stands at $9.8 million.

Sony's other second-week holdover, "Running With Scissors," added 578 theaters to its run, translating to a gross of $2.6 million and a 10th-place spot in the boxoffice rankings. With a per-screen average of $4,351, the R-rated film based on Augusten Burroughs' memoir has earned an estimated $2.9 million overall.

"Saw" is proving to be the horror series that just keeps on giving. With Tobin Bell back as the serial killer with a penchant for torture, "Saw III" actually increased the franchise's opening-weekend audience, besting the opening number of "Saw II" by 10%. Its debut also marks the biggest R-rated opening since May 2004, when Warners' "Troy" bowed to $46.8 million.

The "Saw" franchise continues to attract a younger audience, practically an even split between men and women.

"While other horror franchises are declining, 'Saw' continues to grow," Lionsgate distribution president Steve Rothenberg said. "Its success is testament to the filmmakers and our marketing department, who continue to keep it fresh and vital. Because of that, we continue to grow."

Despite strong reviews nationwide, Focus' "Fire" — a reality-based thriller about apartheid in 1980s South Africa — didn't spark with moviegoers. Bowing at No. 12, the Derek Luke/Tim Robbins starrer grossed a paltry $1,541 per screen in 1,306 theaters. Outpaced by other adult-oriented films, the movie couldn't generate any heat.

"We are very disappointed," Focus Features distribution president Jack Foley said. "The reviews were very good, with a lot of merit given to Derek, and the film worked really well in African-American houses. But it just didn't capture the imagination of everyone else. It's a shame because it's a great film, and Derek is terrific in it."

With so much serious fare already in the marketplace and more dramas to come, it is unlikely that the film will stand much of a chance to recover.

"Who knows what's going to happen next week," Foley said. "It's very hard to rebound after such a soft opening."

Inarritu, the Mexican director known for his interweaving story lines in "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," achieved his largest opening weekend with "Babel." The film, which stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal, looks at the effects of communication breakdowns. Paramount Vantage intends to expand the film this weekend into 13 additional markets before going wide Nov. 10.

The Weinstein Co. had a solid debut with its documentary "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," which centers on the aftershock of lead singer Natalie Maines' disparaging remarks regarding President Bush at a London concert in 2003. The film earned $50,978 for a per-screen average of $12,745.

Two religious-themed movies bowed in limited release this frame. Samuel Goldwyn Films opened "Conversations With God," on 64 screens, grossing $149,120 for a per-screen average of $2,330. The PG-rated film is based on author Neale Donald Walsch's best-selling books. Rocky Mountain Pictures opened "Color of the Cross" in 29 theaters. The film, which depicts a black Jesus, earned $24,824 for a low per-screen average of $856.

For the week ending Oct. 26, total grosses reached $140.5 million, up nearly 22% from the $115.4 million collected during the comparable week last year. Year-to-date, the boxoffice is $7.46 billion, up more than 7% compared with last year's $6.97 billion. Estimated admissions are up more than 5%.