'Betty' strong at second, Olympics present challenge

The fall box office season started sleepily, led by Universal’s “The Watcher” and USA Films’ “Nurse Betty,” with respective studio-estimated openings of $9.1 million and $7.3 million.

The post-Labor Day frame generated overall business of just $58 million, according to ACNielsen EDI, sliding 24% from the same weekend last year. It marked the seventh straight weekend of year-to-year declines and brought the year-to-date total of $5.2 billion into a virtual tie with last year.

“Early September is usually a real down cycle in the business and this weekend was pretty uneventful,” said ACNielsen EDI prexy Tom Borys, who noted the 1999 weekend was particularly strong with an $18.3 million debut for “Stigmata” along with $16.5 million for the sixth weekend of “The Sixth Sense.”

Still, “The Watcher” generated the lowest B.O.-leading total since the March 3-5 frame when “The Whole Nine Yards” topped the chart with $7.2 million.

Universal, which bought domestic rights for “The Watcher” from Interlight, reported audiences were 45% under 25 and skewed slightly toward females as a likely result of the thriller’s damsel-in-distress theme. For Keanu Reeves, in a turn as a serial killer, the debut came in somewhat under last month’s $11 million opening for Warner’s “The Replacements,” now with $39.2 million overall.

Big bounce for ‘Betty’

“Nurse Betty” showed the highest per-engagement figure, as USA exec VP Jack Foley stressed the pic’s 50% jump from Friday to Saturday as indicative of strong recommendations among customers. Audiences were split among genders with most over 35.

“This weekend is a scary time to open, but I think word-of-mouth will make this picture hold nicely and just cruise through the fall,” said Foley, adding that he has no immediate plans to seek more playdates. “We were very careful about not pushing the 2,000-theater button.”

“Betty,” a Pacifica/Intermedia/IMF project originally acquired by Universal through the Polygram purchase, generated particularly solid business in New York, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The weekend’s only other wide debut was Artisan’s crime thriller “The Way of the Gun,” with a disappointing $2.2 million in ninth. A pair of hip-hop pics opened Wednesday and saw quiet returns over the weekend, with New Line’s “Turn It Up” taking $600,000 at 661 engagements and Dimension’s “Backstage” with $510,000 at 322 playdates.

As for holdovers, Universal-Beacon’s cheerfest “Bring It On” and DreamWorks’ sturdy “What Lies Beneath” turned in the smallest declines from the first three days of the Labor Day frame. “Bring” continued to outperform expectations and kicked its 17-day cume over $44 million while “Beneath” topped $142 million.

Par’s “The Original Kings of Comedy,” made for only $3 million, also continued to generate significant coin with its 24-day cume at $32 million. Warner’s “Space Cowboys” showed it’s not yet ready to retire as it nears $79 million, and New Line’s “The Cell” padded its take to top $51 million.

Biggest declines among holdovers was Dimension’s sophomore outing of “Highlander: Endgame” with a 65% plunge and Warner’s third outing of “The Art of War” at 60%.

Playing Games with B.O.

With competition from the Summer Olympics, which open Friday, the September B.O. may find the going choppy. Next up are Warner’s action-comedy “Bait,” Disney’s “Duets” and UA’s “Crime and Punishment in Suburbia.”

DreamWorks reported 60% capacity from 125 Saturday night sneaks of Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical “Almost Famous,” which will begin platforming this week. The studio said audiences were 70% over 25 with 88% rating the pic “excellent” or “very good” in exit surveys.

On the specialty front, Fine Line’s “Saving Grace” took in $1.2 million at 875 playdates to move the comedy’s cume past $8.4 million. MGM’s re-release of 1984 mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” generated a rock-solid $54,000 at 10 major-market engagements, but Sony’s German thriller “Anatomy” bowed unimpressively with $6,000 at eight playdates.

Paramount Classics’ love story “Girl on the Bridge” inched past the $1 million mark with $120,000 at 46 engagements and its “Sunshine” took in $60,000 at 75 screens for a $5.8 million cume.

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