Anderson, Lee pics sizzle in Gotham openings

Laughter and lust ruled the specialty biz B.O. over the weekend as Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” and Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” both enjoyed robust openings.

Awards ballots won’t be cast for weeks to come, but a wide variety of films are already staking out positions in what’s turning out to be the most crowded fall on record in terms of the sheer number of specialty releases. Some, inevitably, are having an easier go of it than others.

“Darjeeling,” debuting in two Gotham theaters on Saturday after opening the New York Film Festival on Friday, brewed an estimated Saturday-Sunday gross of $140,000 for a boffo per-screen average of $70,000. That gave Fox Searchlight the highest per-screen average of the year.

“Lust,” carrying the ultra-restrictive NC-17 rating and clocking in at 158 minutes, grossed an estimated $61,688 for Focus Features in its exclusive run at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Among exclusive openings, it nabbed the best debut ever for a foreign-language film, as well as one of the best showings ever for a live-action film.

Per-screen average is the best on the books for an NC-17 film, whether in an exclusive or limited run. Focus topper James Schamus co-penned the screenplay based on a story by Eileen Chang.

“What does this mean? It means that the running time, the foreign language and the rating just didn’t have an impact on the opening,” Focus prexy of distribution Jack Foley said. “It just cranked to that level.”

Searchlight said “Darjeeling” did well for several reasons, including Anderson’s fan base, which is particularly strong in Gotham. Pic stars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody.

“Also, it is the only adult comedy among so many dark, serious movies. I think people just want to laugh and have a good time,” said Searchlight senior VP of distribution Sheila DeLoach.

With the marketplace so crowded, those behind even specialty pics are feeling the heat to post impressive numbers out of the gate, considering how hard it’ll be to hold onto screens as more and more pictures open and begin expanding over coming weekends.

Expanding to 33 theaters in its second frame, Paramount Vantage’s “Into the Wild” stayed strong, posting the third best per-screen average of the weekend at $20,271. Adventure-drama, directed by Sean Penn and based on the bestselling book by Jon Krakauer, grossed an estimated $668,949 for a cume of $967,513.

Also in its second frame was Sony Classics Pictures’ female-centric “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which grossed $210,382 from 41 screens for a per-screen average of $5,131 and a cume of $418,329.

Warner Independent Pictures expanded Paul Haggis’ Tommy Lee Jones-Charlize Theron starrer “In the Valley of Elah” to 762 runs over the weekend in the film’s third frame, grossing an estimated $1.5 million for a per-screen average of $2,008 and a cume of $3.6 million. The verdict is still out as to whether Americans are ready to see films about the Iraq war or the larger issue of the Middle East.

Two specialty titles made the top 10 list of box office performers over the weekend: Focus’ “Eastern Promises” and Sony-Revolution’s “Across the Universe.”

“Promises,” directed by David Cronenberg, declined 49% in its third frame to an estimated $2.9 million from 1,408 theaters for a per-screen average of $2,054 and a cume of $11.2 million, putting it at No. 8.

Focus is mirroring the release pattern New Line followed with “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg’s last film. Cume for “History of Violence was $18.8 million by the end of its third weekend, although that pic didn’t have as much competition.

Sony and Revolution had a happy time with Julie Taymor’s whimsical romancer “Across the Universe,” which came in at No. 10 for the weekend, grossing an estimated $2 million from 339 screens in its third frame for a per-screen average of $6,047. Cume is $5.5 million.

“Universe,” like this summer’s surprise hit “Hairspray,” is drawing plenty of repeat business, as well as a younger crowd, fueling the pic’s perf.

Among other specialty titles, Roadside Attractions’ sex-trafficking drama “Trade,” starring Kevin Kline, bowed to an estimated $104,172 from 90 screens for a per-screen average of $1,157. Lantern Lane’s offbeat comedy “Outsourced” opened to an estimated $34,937 from eight runs for a per-screen average of $4,367.

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