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B.O. hits new high in September

'Mexico,' 'Underworld' buoy Sony

A machine gun-toting mariachi and a sultry vampire help propel the September box office to an all-time high of $577 million, 7% above the same frame last year.

New entries “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and “Underworld” gave Sony the No. 1 spot during the frame of Aug. 29-Sept. 28 with $128 million — more than double what the Culver City studio generated in September 2002.

Disney took second place with $115 million, thanks primarily to strong summer carryovers “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “Freaky Friday” and “Open Range.”

Last month’s success boiled down to distribs tinkering slightly with last September’s release formula. While there was only one more wide release in 2003 (14 vs. 13 pics), the frame touted three saturated releases (more than 3,000 playdates) — a first for the month — as well as a mid-month weekend top-loaded with five wide openers catering to all demos.

Since September 2000, distribs have unspooled their mass-appeal pics during the period’s last weekend, which typically translates into one of those pics reaping the biggest bow of the month. However, Sony decided to jumpstart September early when it opened “Mexico” in the second weekend. The result: Pic was the third highest September bow ever, its $23 million trailing only 1998’s “Rush Hour” ($33 million) and last year’s “Sweet Home Alabama” ($36 million).

Overall, last month’s wide releases repped 50% of the month’s tally or $291 million, an increase of 30% from last September.

Led by Focus Features’ “Lost in Translation,” the month’s limited fare (pics playing in under 600 engagements) made a substantial jump at the B.O. totaling $50 million, more than double last September’s $21 million.

The top 10 pics for the month were: Sony-Miramax’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” $49 million; Screen Gems-Lakeshore’s “Underworld,” $37 million; MGM-UA’s “Jeepers Creepers 2,” $34 million; Disney’s “Pirates,” $32 million; Warner Bros.’ “Matchstick Men,” $31 million; Disney’s “Freaky Friday,” $29 million; Disney’s “Open Range,” $24 million, Sony’s “S.W.A.T.,” $23.6 million; New Line’s “Secondhand Lions,” $23.4 million; and U/DreamWorks-Spyglass’ “Seabiscuit,” $22 million.

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