Universal's crime drama sets a new record

Universal’s Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe starrer “American Gangster” whacked the weekend box office, easily turning in the highest-opening for an R-rated crime drama in history. With DreamWorks Animation’s “Bee Movie” also pollinating, the film biz had its first honey of a frame in nearly two months.

“American Gangster” grossed an estimated $46.3 million from 3,054 locations, according to Rentrak, outpacing expectations and beating “Bee Movie” for the No. 1 spot. Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment produced.

Paramount Pictures, which distributed “Bee Movie,” still had plenty to buzz about, as the toon voiced, co-written and produced by Jerry Seinfeld debuted to a strong showing of $39.1 million from 3,928 theaters.

“American Gangster” and “Bee Movie” brought the sluggish office back to life after a dismaying losing streak that saw the fall sesh down six weekends in a row vs. the same period last year. Nabbing the two highest openings of the fall, both titles enjoyed the sort of business usually seen closer to Thanksgiving.

Weekend box office was up 8% over last year, when “Borat” led the pack with a haul of $26.4 million, according to Nielsen EDI. Fall-to-date is now running behind 2006 by 4% vs. a previous 6%. Year-to-date is still up 6% over the same period in 2006.

Not everyone enjoyed the spoils, however. New Line’s John Cusack starrer “Martian Child” — the weekend’s only other wide opener — couldn’t find much rocket power, grossing an estimated $3.6 million from 2,020 runs. Drama, about a widower who adopts a boy who thinks he’s from Mars, placed No. 7.

With the awards season still wide open, “American Gangster” is the first box office hit among big studio contenders, giving U a strong launching pad.

“All the stars aligned for us,” Universal prexy of domestic distribution Nikki Rocco said. “I’m thrilled that this film jump-started the business. Face it: This is a big result for an R-rated film that runs over 150 minutes.”

Previous record holder for best debut by an R-rated crime drama was “Sin City,” which bowed at $29.1 million. Denzel Washington starrer “Inside Man” is next with $28.9 million, followed by “The Departed,” which opened at $26.9 million.

While moviegoers have seemingly been turned off by the endless parade of serious-minded titles this fall, “American Gangster” seemed to provide the right combo of entertainment and drama. Film tells the real-life story of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who ruled the heroin trade in 1970s New York, and the cop who brought him down. Script was adapted by Steven Zaillian from a New York mag article by Mark Jacobson.

“American Gangster” shot down some other marks in its debut. It registered the best opening ever for both Washington and Crowe and the second best for Scott after “Hannibal” ($58 million). Pic marks the third time Scott has directed Crowe after “Gladiator,” which opened at $34.8 million, and “A Good Year,” which debuted to a disappointing $3.7 million last year.

Pic marks the first time Scott and Washington have worked together.

Bow of “American Gangster” gives Universal its second-highest opening of the year after “The Bourne Ultimatum” ($69.3 million) and helps to make up for the disappointing fall bow of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and the only moderate box office showing for “The Kingdom.”

“American Gangster” B.O. was boosted by a strong turnout from African-Americans, who made up 36% of the aud. Film skewed older, generally speaking, with three-fifths of the audience above 30. Females edged out males by a 53%-47% margin.

While “American Gangster” saw its Friday-to-Saturday audience grow by 12%, “Bee Movie” saw a whopping 66% Friday-to-Saturday surge. Friday-to-Saturday increases are commonplace for family titles.

“We couldn’t be happier. The numbers are right in the range that we hoped for. We believe it is a must-see for families,” said DreamWorks Animation worldwide marketing topper Anne Globe. “It’s a very strong showing, with a great opportunity to continue playing into the holidays.”

“Bee Movie” is the sixth highest grossing fall toon ever after “The Incredibles” ($70.5 million), “Monsters, Inc.” ($62.6 million), “Shark Tale” ($47.6 million), “Happy Feet” ($41.5 million) and “Chicken Little” ($40 million).

“Happy Feet” went on to gross $198 domestically, while “Chicken Little” ended up at $135.4 million.

Behind the scenes, some at DreamWorks Animation had hoped “Bee Movie” would crack $40 million. It did come in ahead of DreamWorks Animation’s “Over the Hedge,” which, like “Bee Movie,” sported major voice talent in Bruce Willis. “Hedge” opened to $38.5 million in May 2006 on its way to $155 million domestically.

Last fall, DreamWorks Animation struggled at the box office with “Flushed Away,” which opened at only $18.8 million.

The challenge in marketing “Bee” came in that it’s not as kid-friendly as past DreamWorks titles since it sports Seinfeld’s particular brand of humor. Families comprised two-thirds of the audience, adults the remaining third.

Seinfeld did plenty of tub-thumping for “Bee,” which also toplines Renee Zellweger and was directed by Stephen Hickner. Toon also features the voices of Chris Rock, John Goodman and Oprah Winfrey, among others.

In other weekend action, Lionsgate-Twisted Pictures’ “Saw IV” and Disney’s offbeat Steve Carell laffer “Dan in Real Life” — both in their second weekend — came in at Nos. 3 and 4, respectively.

“Saw IV” declined 65% in its second frame to an estimated $11 million from 3,183 runs; cume is $51 million.

“Dan” declined 31% to an estimated $8.1 million from 1,925. Cume is $22.2 million.

Among awards contenders playing wide, Warner Bros.’ George Clooney starrer “Michael Clayton” and Miramax’s “Gone Baby Gone” remained on the top 10 list.

“Clayton,” showing particular stamina, placed No. 8 in its fifth frame. Legal drama-thriller declined 41% to an estimated $2.9 million from 2,107 theaters; cume is $33.2 million.

“Gone Baby Gone,” directed by Ben Affleck, declined 37% in its third frame to an estimated $2.4 million from 1,617 locations. Cume is $15 million.

Elsewhere, Disney family laffer “The Game Plan” remained a strong player, coming in at No. 6 in its sixth frame and jumping the $80 million mark at the box office. Title declined 37% to an estimated $3.8 million from 2,844. With a cume of $81.9 million, movie is by far the biggest grosser of the fall.

Coming in at No. 9 was Tyler Perry’s ‘Why Did I Get Married?” Crossing the $50 million mark over the weekend, Lionsgate title declined 52% in its fourth frame to $2.7 million from 1,403 locations. Cume is $51.1 million.

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