$26 mil Kazakh attack

'Borat' taps into hype as it invades U.S. B.O.

After broad speculation that Internet buzz could turn Fox comedy “Borat” into “Snakes on a Plane 2,” the Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle behaved more like “Fahrenheit 9/11” over the frame, coming in at No. 1 with $26.3 million.

Left-field hit won the weekend handily against all odds, playing on just 837 screens. “Borat” drew a whopping per-engagement average of $31,511, as the pic brought in an aud that was almost half over 25 as well as the expected college crowd.

Monday morning quarterbacks will wonder whether Fox could have captured even more B.O. dough had the studio rolled out “Borat” more widely.

But the studio’s execs say that the movie plays best in a packed house, and that the initial run built the word of mouth that a pic such as this would need to expand.

Disney’s “The Santa Clause 3,” the No. 2 finisher, unspooled on 3,458 to hit $20 million. Disney said it had been expecting to finish at somewhere between $19 million and $21 million.

“Borat” won the day, in part, because “Clause” and Paramount/DreamWorks Animation’s “Flushed Away” — which washed in at No. 3 with $19.1 million — split the family aud, while the fictional Kazakh TV commentator brought in adults and teens.

“This was not a conventional sell,” said Fox production topper Hutch Parker of the “Borat” perf. “It’s not a conventional anything. But it has had such unbelieveable playability.

“We’re not selling ‘Wedding Crashers,’ ” he added. “This is not a TV-friendly sell. Rather than shotgunning it, we made people aware of it.”

Comedy also was an international sensation for the studio, which will now ratchet up the pic’s domestic playdates to 2,500 next frame. That move makes an already overcrowded fall that much more swamped with pics vying for attention.

Though the season is tight, “Borat” should not have too much competish next frame going against new releases such as the upscale “A Good Year” and “Stranger Than Fiction,” and gritty “Harsh Times.” Finding choice screens could be tight, though, but exhibs should now be eager to get their hands on the pic.

Frame’s other new wide opener, “Flushed,” produced the highest-ever bow for a project produced via Brit banner Aardman. But Sony’s “Open Season,” which opened at $23 million in September, is still stealing animated biz: Pic finished at No. 9 after six frames and has taken in more than $81 million to date.

“Borat” helped boost B.O. overall from last weekend: Top 10 pics drew more than $111 million vs. $83.3 million last frame, when “Saw III” ruled the roost.

“Saw” this weekend lost more than half of its aud, taking in $15.5 million to bring cume to more than $60 million in just two frames.

Also notable on the weekend was “The Departed,” which crossed $102 million to become Martin Scorsese’s highest-grossing film ever. Pic slipped just 19% in its fifth frame.

Holding well, too, was Disney’s magic-themed “The Prestige,” which also dipped a scant 19% to raise its cume to nearly $40 million. Its print count was up by 24 to 2,305.

Paramount war pic “Flags of Our Fathers” dipped 29% in its third frame, taking in $4.5 million.

After opening comparably, pic is still on the same pace as Eastwood’s “Mystic River.” “Flags” has so far taken in $26.6 million.

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