Boffo bow for ‘Bama’

Disney romancer turns B.O. tide with $37 mil preem

“Sweet Home Alabama” captured the box office flag this weekend with a September-record $37.5 million in estimated opening grosses.

Boffo “‘Bama” bow shows Disney wasn’t whisting Dixie when it unspooled Reese Witherspoon starrer in a whopping 3,293 theaters, also a monthly record. Perf more than doubled the $15.1 million estimated opening of No. 2 finisher “The Tuxedo,” an action comedy starring Jackie Chan that DreamWorks distribbed in a similarly super-wide 3,022 locations.

MGM’s “Barbershop” shrugged off controversy over script’s race-sensitive jokes to finish third on the frame. Ensemble laffer shaved just 21% from its previous weekend to lather up $10.1 million over a third sesh and a $51.4 million cume.

Industrywide, the weekend repped a 34% improvement over the same frame a year ago with $103 million in estimated opening grosses, according to B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. Year-to-date, 2002 is almost 13% ahead of the same portion of last year with $6.71 billion in total grosses.

Weekend’s big year-over-year uptick came despite substantial weekend-to-weekend drops for four pics that bowed a week earlier.

‘Banger’ off 46%

Fox Searchlight’s soph-sesher “The Banger Sisters” was off 46% at $5.4 million in fifth place, one rung below long-running IFC laffer “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which took in another $9.8 million for a $137 million cume.

Paramount military adventure “Four Feathers” finished sixth with $3.6 million on a 47% drop from its opening sesh.

Warner Bros./Franchise actioner “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” was off 62% from inaugural grosses with $2.8 million in eighth place, just below Searchlight platformer “One Hour Photo” with $3 million.

And Sony thriller “Trapped” tumbled 53% from its bow to $1.5 million, good for a 10th-place tie with distrib’s “Stealing Harvard” in laffer’s third sesh. Ninth place went to leggy Mouse suspenser “Signs” with $2.3 million and a $221.1 million cume.

Among several limited bows this weekend, Mouse’s “Moonlight Mile” drama grossed an estimated $350,000 from 22 theaters — a notable $15,779 per venue. Helmed by well-known TV director Brad Silberling and starring Dustin Hoffman and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko”), “Mile” expands to 425-450 sites next weekend.

Goldwyn/Fireworks unspooled Andy Garcia-Mick Jagger starrer “The Man From Elysian Fields” in six L.A. locations to harvest $49,200, or a fertile $8,200 per venue.

Media Partners bowed Bollywood thriller “Road” with 17 engagements and grossed $70,100, or a middling $4,124 per playdate.

Paramount Classics planted romancer “Just a Kiss” in five L.A. and Gotham locations and grossed $7,579, a thin $1,1516 per site.

And Sony saw $112,000 from six theaters in five markets from its re-release of newly restored “Lawrence of Arabia,” repping an impressive per-screen average of $18,666.

Elsewhere in the crowded specialty market, United Artists expanded black comedy “Igby Goes Down” by 19 locations for a total 121 and grossed $686,000, an acceptable $5,672 per site with a $2.1 million cume.

Solid ‘Spirit’ seshes

Disney widened Japanese anime tooner “Spirited Away” by 27 theaters for a total 53 and fetched $520,000, or a solid $9,827 per venue. “Spirited” fleshed out cume to $1.1 million.

Lions Gate broadened its “Secretary” drama by 42 engagements for a total 53 and grossed $375,000, an admirable $7,075 per playdate with a $650,000 cume.

Rainforest expanded suspenser “Pandora’s Box” by 20 theaters for a total 27 and grossed $152,807, or a benign $5,660 per venue with a $503,807 cume.

Par Classics widened German-lingo laffer “Mostly Martha” by 17 sites for a total 148 and grossed $307,065, or $2,147 per location with a $2.6 million cume.

And Thinkfilm held in 30 locations for drama “The Last Kiss,” grossing $82,000, or $2,733 per site with a $691,237 cume.

Disney distrib prexy Chuck Viane said the super-wide “Bama” bow followed an 11th-hour decision to boost playdates due to pre-release buzz.

A yarn about a ‘Bama-born clothes designer who returns home from Gotham to rediscover love, Andy Tennant-helmed romancer drew mixed reviews. But topliner won more favorable notices, and exit interviews showed patrons liked the pic a whole lot better than the crix.

Stellar opening — a personal-best for topliner — furthers Witherspoon’s ascendancy as a date-movie queen following her similar surprise success with last year’s “Legally Blonde.” Her appeal is especially strong with young femmes, and “Bama” skewed 60% female.

“This is a monster opening,” Viane said. “And this young lady is a huge star.”

Viane noted Saturday night auds were much less femme-dominated and said he expects an even male-female split over future seshes.

Burgeoning B.O. clout

MGM’s “Blonde” opened in July 2001 with $20.4 million. Distrib has skedded “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” for next July.

Witherspoon’s last pic, arthouse laffer “The Importance of Being Earnest,” was a platformed release that grossed $8.1 million domestically over the summer.

“Bama” blew away September’s previous record bow of $33 million, set by “Rush Hour” in 1998.

Kevin Donovan marked his feature-helming debut with “Tuxedo.” Pic, which pairs Jennifer Love Hewitt with comical chopsocky star Chan, skewed 55% male with 54% of patrons under age 25. Pic’s super-wide release reflected distrib’s expectation of high family attendance, and 44% of “Tuxedo” auds proved to be family patrons.

“You can go wider with family movies,” observed DreamWorks distrib topper Jim Tharp, who said he was “pleased” with pic’s bow.

Before this weekend’s two super-wide releases, there had never been a single 3,000-plus opener before in September, historically a lackluster movie-going month.

Wide openers set for the upcoming frame include Universal’s Hannibal Lecter pic “Red Dragon” and Artisan tooner “Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.”

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