Santa takes on loon

Disney pic battles 'Flushed,' Cohen for box office

The weekend looks like a winner for Disney’s “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause” as the Mouse House takes early first dibs in the holiday derby for family auds.

But the real B.O. intrigue lies with Fox’s “Borat,” the outrageous Sacha Baron Cohen comedy that Hollywood has termed everything from another “Snakes on a Plane” to a modern-day, left-field hit along the lines of “Blazing Saddles” or “There’s Something About Mary.”

After an initial raft of crackling Internet and Hollywood buzz for “Borat,” pic’s potential potency was so feared that distrib heads all over town said they weren’t going anywhere near it with competish that would angle for young males.

But when the film’s initially low tracking numbers hit — reflecting the fact that auds outside the MySpace sphere had little interest in the kamikaze Kazakh TV commentator — the debate became hit vs. hype.As a result, Fox ratcheted down the number of playdates to just 837. With so few screens, “Borat” has no chance of wining the frame.

However, it now seems that media reports of the pic’s possible overhyping has actually spiked awareness, as Cohen, in character all along, has also pumped the pic’s promotion.

Animated “Flushed Away” will, meanwhile, try and siphon off some of the kiddie crowd from “Santa.”

Emerging as a perennial brand, the Tim Allen “Santa Clause” franchise has so far unwrapped more than $284 million domestically — and shouldn’t have too much trouble adding up to $30 million to its stocking.

Pic will play 3,458 engagements in the frame’s widest new release by far; “Flushed Away” hits 3,707.

Par is expecting an opening “Flushed” frame in line with that of the $16 million-plus bow for 2005’s “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” another animated project from Brit banner Aardman.

Also angling for teen auds will be last weekend’s big winner, “Saw III,” which slashed its way to a bow of $33.6 million, distrib Lionsgate’s biggest opening of all time.

But with Halloween over, auds’ attention should be divided.

Arty fare

On the arthouse circuit, Sony Classics will enter its latest Pedro Almodovar project, “Volver,” into a field that already includes awards hopefuls “The Queen” (Miramax) and “The Last King of Scotland” (Fox Searchlight).

Still duking it with varying degrees of success, several bigger-budgeted pics with awards intentions should remain in the top 10, including Paramount’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” Warner Bros.’ “The Departed” and Disney’s “The Prestige.”

At the international wickets, Fox is going day-and-date with the U.S. release of “Borat” in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the U.K.

Biggest impact should be in Britain, where Cohen originated the character.

And with about 400 playdates, pic will play about half the number of engagements skedded for its North American launch.

Fox reported that “Borat” had opened strongly on 45 screens in Belgium on Wednesday and finished second to “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Fox’s “Prada” has a shot at winning the international box office for the fifth straight weekend thanks to strong holdover performances in major European markets. As of Wednesday, the fashionista comedy had surpassed $138 million in foreign grosses and $263 million worldwide.

UIP’s going day-and-date with “Flushed Away” in Malaysia, Russia and Singapore. Its summer-season family toon “Over the Hedge” topped $170 million in foreign grosses.

Other foreign launches include “Flags of Our Fathers” in Australia and Taiwan, Fox’s “A Good Year” in Spain, “The Prestige” in Mexico and South Korea, UIP’s “Nacho Libre” in France and “Saw III” through BVI

in Argentina and Brazil. In Australia, where Hoyts is distributing, “Saw III” opened Thursday in first with $400,000 at 208– 29% above “Saw II.”

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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