'Witch' proves magic at the box office

Leading a year-end charge at the box office, Disney/Walden’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” roared out of the gates over the weekend to take in $67.1 million.

Bow — the third biggest of the year, behind those of “Star Wars: Episode III — Attack of the Clones” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” — raised hopes that the 2005 box office deficit will be lessened substantially as a raft of holiday pics weighs in.

Strong perf shaved a point off the year’s decline in box office compared to 2004, putting it at 5%. While 2005′s B.O. total undoubtedly will be lower than last year’s, it now looks likely to end up in the low single digits if “King Kong” and a host of high-profile Christmas bows perform as expected.

The weekend’s other wide release, “Syriana,” struggled somewhat to find a large audience after two very successful weeks on a handful of screens. Controversial political thriller took second place with a decent $12 million.

Though aud was expected to be biggest among families and aggressively targeted Christians, “Narnia” scored well across all demos. Disney reported a surprising 51% of moviegoers came without kids.

Pic faces giant-size competition in the form of Universal tentpole “Kong” on Wednesday. But with its PG rating, “Narnia” is hoping to see a sizable family aud through the school holiday. In addition, Disney/Walden pic has group bookings, primarily through churches and schools, well into January.

“You pick your opening weekend to set up playability over the holidays, and it appears we have that,” noted Disney domestic distrib chief Chuck Viane.

“Narnia” took in an average of $18,547 on 3,616 playdates.

In a good sign for the Mouse House and Walden’s hopes to build a franchise based on the books, take was well above the $47.2 million weekend bow of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first installment of New Line’s mega-successful “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, in 2001.

It’s the second-highest weekend gross ever for December, behind only that of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which debuted with $72.6 million in 2003.

WB’s “Syriana” had some trouble appealing to a broad audience with its controversial political content and complex storyline. Pic made an average of $6,866 on 1,752 playdates.

Take was well below the wide bow five years ago of “Traffic,” another complex political drama penned by Stephen Gaghan, which made $15.5 million on 1,510 screens.

“We hope we can broaden it out based on how we do with top-10 lists and awards,” said Warner domestic distribution topper Dan Fellman.

Cume for “Syriana” is $13.5 million.

Par found that the future is flat in the second frame of “Aeon Flux,” as the sci-fi actioner collapsed 63%, dropping to sixth place with $4.6 million. Average was $1,773 on 2,608 plays; total take is $20.3 million.

With “Narnia” sucking in most of the family aud, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” fell 48% in its fourth week to $10.3 million, putting it in the No. 3 spot. Playing 3,728 theaters, pic made an average of $2,767.

Cume now has reached a sensational $244.1 million, moving it ahead of “War of the Worlds” to the No. 2 spot for the year, behind only “Star Wars: Episode III.”

Also still playing strong is “Walk the Line,” which took fourth place with $5.8 million, down 40%. Average take on 3,034 playdates was $1,895.

Fox’s Johnny Cash biopic now has made $77 million. That puts it ahead of last year’s singer biopic, “Ray,” which made $75.3 million.

Par did well with its comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours,” which fell a modest 38% against tough competition for the family aud in its third week. Its $5.2 million gross was good enough for fifth place.

Pic made an average of $1,604 on 3,210 screens. Cume is $40.9 million.

With a market full of family pics and dramas, New Line found that an adult comedy was good counterprogramming, as “Just Friends” declined only 30% in its third frame, taking seventh place with $3.9 million. Playing 2,464 screens, pic had an average take of $1,583.

Following a mediocre start over Thanksgiving of just $9.2 million, low-cost comedy has built a decent cume of $26.5 million.

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