B.O.’s card trick

'Rounders' wins B.O. pot with $8.8 mil

Miramax’s poker drama “Rounders” drew an $8.8 million hand and walked away the winner of a low-stakes post-Labor Day weekend box office game, according to studio projections.

The victory pushed last weekend’s high-roller, 20th Century Fox’s “There’s Something About Mary,” into second place with a studio-estimated $8 million. Down just 10% from the Friday-Sunday portion of the Labor Day frame, the comedy, helmed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, has cumed an amazing $140.2 million in just under nine weeks.

Meanwhile, Buena Vista’s newcomer “Simon Birch” took root among the top-five grossers with $3.3 million, despite opening in less than 600 groves.

“Rounders” was the first No. 1 film released under the Miramax label since the weekend of Aug. 15, 1997, when “Cop Land” bowed to $13.5 million. “Scream 2,” released under the minimajor’s Dimension genre label, took the B.O. title last Dec. 12, with $39.2 million.

“Rounders’ ” prospects looked particularly strong Friday, coming out of the gate with nearly $2.8 million. But the John Dahl-helmed pic saw only a moderate 31% increase on Saturday.

The trajectory indicates a predominantly younger audience — teens tend to favor Friday night shows, while adults usually wait for Saturday night or Sunday. Those results jibe with pre-opening tracking, which indicated interest in the film was strongest among young females, probably attracted in large part by heartthrob Matt Damon.

Reviews, which generally ranged from fair to good, may not have been effusive enough to convince older auds to ante up the price of a ticket.

Slow season

The weekend after Labor Day is traditionally a soft one for the nation’s theaters, as students settle back into school routines. Last year, Warner Bros.’ Steven Seagal-starrer “Fire Down Below” led the time period with just $6 million.

This year appeared to be no exception. Overall ticket sales for the frame were running just a hair ahead of 1997, when the top 60 films totaled just $52.6 million.

In fifth place, “Simon Birch,” directed by “Grumpy Old Men” scribe Mark Steven Johnson, and “suggested by” John Irving’s 1989 bestseller “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” averaged a solid $5,537 per location.

Convinced of the film’s playability, but mindful of the difficulties in marketing a film with limited star-power and mixed reviews, Buena Vista has tried to build positive word of mouth for “Simon.” The studio offered not one, but two sneak previews before moving the film gradually into nationwide release.

“We’ve always known the public loves this picture when they see it,” said BV distribution president Phil Barlow. “It’s building some momentum and we believe the commercial prospects are bright.”

“Simon” expands to about 900 theaters on Friday, and could go up from there if audience response is good, Barlow said.

Welles reissue

Several films opened in exclusive runs over the weekend, including October’s reissue of Orson Welles’ “A Touch of Evil.”

The 1958 noir thriller, restored and newly edited based on Welles’ own writings, grossed about $65,000 in three New York and L.A. theaters, or $21,667 per site.

By comparison, Universal’s restored 70mm version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” bowed to $73,600 in two locations, or $36,800 per screen, in October 1996. That reissue went on to cume slightly less than $2 million theatrically in the U.S.

“Evil” will expand into the top 20 or 25 markets over the next few weeks.

Warner Bros.’ “Without Limits,” the Robert Towne-helmed biopic of runner Steve Prefontaine, left the starting blocks at $56,000 in five L.A. and Gotham locations, for an $11,200 average.

Trimark’s sci-fi thriller “Cube” got off to an unimpressive start, grossing $59,000 in 16 runs in New York and L.A. First-timer Vincenzo Natali’s pic, which Trimark picked up at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, averaged a so-so $3,684 per box.

Considerably less auspicious was Fine Line’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” the directorial debut of actress Troy Beyer. Pic, which follows the romantic and professional challenges of three young women in Miami, grossed $208,000 in 250 locations, or a flaccid $832 per conversation.

In its second week, Buena Vista’s costumer “Firelight” dropped 21% to $82,000 in 11 locations for a $7,455 average. The Sophie Marceau starrer has cumed $240,000 to date.

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