'Interpreter' finds voice with $23 million

This article was updated at 6:27 p.m.

Despite the box office heat generated by “The Interpreter,” the spring season closed on a damp note.

Debuting stronger than expected, Universal’s Nicole Kidman-Sean Penn thriller, directed by Sydney Pollack, opened at No. 1 with $22.8 million from 2,758 theaters.

But overall biz continued its languid pace, extending the slump to nine straight weekends when total box office has lagged behind 2004 numbers.

In second place for the frame was MGM’s “The Amityville Horror” with $14.2 million, proving sturdier than expected in its soph sesh with just a 40% decline from its opening.

It was followed by Bristol Bay Prods. and Paramount’s “Sahara,” also showing some legs, with $9 million in its third frame, down 31%.

Two newcomers rounded out the top five: Disney’s Ashton Kutcher-Amanda Peet romantic comedy “A Lot Like Love” debuted at No. 4 with $7.7 million from 2,502 locations.

It was closely followed by Sony Pictures Classics’ “Kung Fu Hustle” with $7.3 million. The Stephen Chow martial arts pic expanded this weekend to 2,503 venues after two weeks of play on seven screens.

Frame’s other new pic, New Line’s “King’s Ransom,” got off to a slower start with $2.4 million from 1,508 engagements, placing it at No. 10 for the session.

All about Kidman

“Interpreter” is the biggest opening for Kidman when she’s played a lead, topping the $21.7 million opening for “Eyes Wide Shut” and the $21.4 million bow for “The Stepford Wives.” (Her highest-opening pic is “Batman Forever,” which unspooled with $52.8 million in its first outing.)

The U.N. assassination thriller is also the biggest debut in Penn’s career, surpassing the $14.3 million opening for 1997’s “The Game” and the $10.4 million “Mystic River” saw the first weekend it played in wide release.

Penn generated some fireworks of his own regarding the film when Universal issued a printed apology in the Los Angeles Times last week over an ad for T-Mobile that was supposed to be — but wasn’t — approved by Penn. (See story, page 3.)

Pic also reps the best opener ever for Working Title, which produced the film for U, topping the three-day $21.8 million opening number for 1999’s “Notting Hill.”

Nikki Rocco, U’s distrib prexy, said exit surveys showed the aud skewed older, as expected, with 58% of the aud over age 35. Polls also showed Kidman (followed by the story and suspense) was the biggest draw for the 58% female crowd.

“The film is one that appeals more to the adult audience,” Rocco said, “but to do this kind of business there had to be a little spillover somewhere along the way,”

Strategic ‘Hustle’

Sony Classics had invested heavily in Chinese import “Kung Fu Hustle,” mounting an extensive Internet marketing campaign. Label co-prexy Tom Bernard said the weekend’s results were part of a strategy of growing “Hustle” “over time.”

“This is a marathon picture for us,” he said. “What we’ve done is established a foothold for the summer. We did this to get the attention and then ride the wave through the summer as word of mouth grows.”

He said pic still has room to grow, as the frame’s grosses skewed heavily to larger metropolitan areas. Its aud was about two-thirds male, mostly between the ages of 25 to 40.

“A Lot Like Love” had the mirror-image aud, about two-thirds female, said Disney distrib topper Chuck Viane. “We knew we would be female-centric,” he said.

Nielsen EDI estimates the frame’s entire box office at $93 million. That’s 6% behind the comparable weekend in 2004, when “Man on Fire” and “13 Going on 30″ both opened above $20 million.

For the year, 2005 has slipped 5% behind last year, with total box office of $2.36 billion so far.

Viane noted, “The business continues to be softer than people have been expecting. It just seems the public has a very lackluster approach to going to the movies.”

Specialty business

In the limited arena, Magnolia’s doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” got off to a hot start, grossing $75,000 from three screens in Gotham and Houston.

Also opening was IFC’s soccer pic “The Game of the Their Lives,” which took in $190,000 from 64 screens, for an average of $2,968 per screen.

MGM opened “Madison” on 93 screens and saw results of $253,000, an average of $2,720.

Among holdovers, Lions Gate’s “House of D” brought in $7,000 from two screens in the second week of its run. Cume on David Duchovny’s directorial debut is now $50,800.

Sony Classics’ “Look at Me,” in its fourth week, grossed $158,583 from 47 screens (an expansion of 22). Averaging $3,374 per screen, pic now has a cume of $587,667.

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