Fall kicks off blitz of niche pics

The kickoff to the limited-run season unofficially begins today as Miramax’s “Proof” and Warner Independent’s “Everything Is Illuminated” bow at the B.O.

Titles will be competing with two wide-release pics — DreamWorks’ “Just Like Heaven” and Lions Gate’s “Lord of War” — which are expected to divide the guys and girls this weekend.

Industry estimates have the Reese Witherspoon romancer “Heaven” claiming the top spot over the Nicolas Cage arms dealer drama “War,” which will vie for second with last weekend’s champ, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

“Heaven” will get help from its ultrawide release pattern, with 3,508 locations. “War” will go out at 2,814.

Other pics opening this frame include two slasher pics: Rogue Pictures’ puts out “Cry Wolf” at 1,789 playdates while Dimensions shows “Venom” at 489.

Miramax, which has just two weeks left with Bob and Harvey Weinstein at the helm, will open “Proof” on eight screens in Gotham and L.A. as well as expand Robert Redford-Jennifer Lopez drama “An Unfinished Life” to 753 screens after debuting it on 139 last weekend.

September has been heavenly for Witherspoon before — “Sweet Home Alabama” bowed to $35.6 million on Sept. 27, 2002. No one is expecting a bow that big for “Heaven,” but it is attracting strong interest from Witherspoon’s core aud of young femmes, said DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp.

In a near mirror image, R-rated “War” will rely on older males to drive its opening. While there’s little else in the marketplace for that aud segment, the second week of the NFL season may keep a number of guys away from theaters on Sunday.

Meanwhile, PG-13-rated “Cry Wolf,” which emerged from a screenplay contest sponsored by Chrysler and Universal, will target teens.

Jeff Wadlow, who penned and helmed the pic, won the competish’s first prize of a $1 million production budget. When “Wolf” was completed, U showed it to its specialty label Focus for distrib consideration.

Focus distrib topper Jack Foley said the film matched the company’s plans for its genre label Rogue. “It accomplishes what Rogue wants to do: Make films that appeal to that edgy demographic and also find new filmmakers. It’s great to validate this kind of commitment.”

With such a modest negative cost, Foley said pic doesn’t have to gross much to be a financial success.

In the limited release arena, things are getting busier in preparation for the fall rush of specialty films.

Picturehouse debuts “The Thing About My Folks” on 93 screens in eight markets. Banner topper Bob Berney said the strategy is taken from the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” playbook. “We’re going after a word of mouth audience, and we’ve already done an extensive screening program,” he said.

“Illuminated” bows on six screens in Gotham and L.A. and Sony Pictures Classics’ “Thumbsucker” on nine screens in both cities.

In preparation for a wide release next weekend, Warner Bros. is also launching “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” on five screens in the two cities.

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