'Ray' joins chillers atop Halloween B.O.

Halloween weekend was a treat for horror pics. Sony’s “The Grudge” stayed strong in its second sesh, claiming the weekend’s top spot with $22.4 million, a decline of 42% from its opening three days. Pic has cumed $71.3 million.

And opening in third, “Saw” bowed to $17.4 million from 2,315 locations as Lions Gate transformed another low-budget festival frightener into a commercial success.

In the No. 2 spot, Universal’s “Ray,” the Ray Charles biopic it’s distribbing for Phil Anschutz’s Bristol Bay Prods., opened stronger than expected with $20.1 million from 2,006 playdates, averaging $10,025 per theater.

Also opening this weekend was New Line’s Nicole Kidman thriller “Birth,” which scored $1.7 million from 550 venues to place 11th for the weekend.

Rounding out the top five were DreamWorks’ fish toon “Shark Tale” with $8.1 million, down 44% from last weekend — the first seven-figure weekend in its five-week run — and Miramax’s Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez romancer “Shall We Dance” with $6.3 million, off 35%.

While it didn’t edge out the Sarah Michelle Gellar scarer, U’s “Ray” beat expectations. Studio picked up the project in March after every other studio approached by Anschutz’s Bristol Bay passed on it.

Distrib prexy Nikki Rocco described the opening as “incredible” and credited the filmmakers and star Jamie Foxx as well as the U marketing and distrib teams.

Exit surveys showed the aud primarily over age 30, with femmes slightly outnumbering males. Though “Ray” garnered strong interest from African-American auds, studio polling found 40% of the aud was white.

Bio pick

“Ray’s” bow is especially strong for the biopic genre, which is not known for producing blockbuster openings. Those that turn into hits typically build gradually rather than coming out of the gates strong. U is hoping to do just that with the benefit of Oscar buzz around Foxx’s perf.

Tops in the biopic category is “A Beautiful Mind” with $171 million domestic; it rolled out slowly in late 2001. Over its first weekend of wide release, in the third week of its run, it took in $16.6 million.

“Catch Me If You Can,” the No. 2 grossing biopic with $165 million, opened with $30.1 million on Christmas a year later. That pic and U’s “Erin Brockovich” ($28.1 million bow) are the only two bios to open bigger than “Ray,” if U’s weekend estimate holds. Sony’s “Ali” bowed to $20 million on Christmas 2001.

Lions Gate touted the “Saw” numbers as validation of its business strategy of building low-budget pics into commercial hits. Debut effort of helmer James Wan was picked up in a preemptive deal worth about $1 million just before its debut at Sundance this year.

Along the same lines, Lions Gate steered “Open Water” on a commercial course after picking it up at Sundance in a distrib deal for around $2.5 million. That pic grossed $30 million in the U.S.

Lions Gate distrib exec VP Steve Rothenberg noted “Saw’s” bow is the second biggest in the company’s history, following the $23.9 million for “Fahrenheit 9/11″ in June.

Studio exit polls found the R-rated pic’s aud was 60% under age 25 and, as expected, skewed male.

Still in a slump

The three strong perfs, however, were not enough to bring the box office out of its three-month slump. Overall weekend biz was down yet again. Nielsen EDI estimates total box office for the frame at $99 million, off 7% from last year’s tepid Halloween frame, which featured no new wide releases and biz driven by holdovers “Scary Movie 3,” “Brother Bear” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

This weekend marks the 10th out of the last 13 that have been off vs. 2003. Slump is in the process of erasing 2004′s year-to-date lead over 2003. So far, 2004 has drummed up $7.462 billion at the wickets, 2.7% ahead of last year’s $7.262 billion.

One upside to the soft box office has been better week-to-week holds. Just as a crush of strong product over the summer produced steep second-week drops of 50% and more, the weak late-summer and early-fall period has slowed declines to the 40% range.

Few reach century mark

Still, shallow declines matter only if you are falling from higher bases. And just two pics released in the last three months have grossed more than $100 million: DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale,” which has cumed $147 million, and the studio’s “Collateral.” DreamWorks, however, left latter pic in theaters for an especially long 10-week run before it crossed the milestone with a $432,000 three-day perf for a cume of $100,003,492. Pic disappeared from theaters the next week.

Of the films still in release, the only ones that have a shot of crossing $100 million are “Grudge” (only if it stretches much farther than horror pics tend to) and “Ray” (if U’s strategy of extended and steady play through awards season pans out).

In 2003, by comparison, the August-through-October span produced four films that crossed the century mark: “S.W.A.T.” ($117 million domestic), “Freaky Friday” ($110 million), “Scary Movie 3″ ($110 million) and “American Wedding” ($105 million).

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