Specialty films add action to box office battle

Jodie Foster vigilante drama “The Brave One” rode a soft opening to win the weekend crown at the domestic box office, but the frame’s real action came in the specialty race, where David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” led with a robust per-location average of $36,851 as the crowded fall prestige race began in earnest.

“Brave One,” produced by Joel Silver, debuted to an estimated $14 million from 2,755 locations. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures had hoped the R-rated pic would open in the mid to high teens. Foster starrer “Flightplan” debuted at $24.6 million in 2005, while “Panic Room” opened to $30 million in 2002, although those two pics had broader, more commercial appeal.

Focus’ “Promises” — winner of the aud nod this weekend for best film at the Toronto film fest — was followed in the specialty roster by Julie Taymor’s whimsical musical-drama “Across the Universe,” which sang to a per-screen average of $29,783, and Paul Haggis’ Tommy Lee Jones-Charlize Theron starrer “In the Valley of Elah,” which scored a solid per-location average of $16,666, according to Rentrak.

It was a weekend of contradictions: The violent “Brave One,” directed by Neil Jordan, seemed to target and pique the interest of older women. “Valley of Elah,” from Warner Independent Pictures, is the first of a handful of films set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, but since it’s also a whodunit, the opening tally may not signify that auds are ready for war pics. Meanwhile, young people turned out for Sony and Revolution’s “Across the Universe,” based on music of the Beatles, a band that’s ancient history to them.

Serious and violent storylines dominated as the summer tentpole bazaar gave way to the fall specialty arena and overall box office biz slowed. The weekend was up 2% over the same period last year, and the frame was the fifth in a row led by an R-rated title — the first time that has happened since 2001, according to Nielsen EDI.

R-rated Western and awards hopeful “3:10 to Yuma,” the top gunslinger last weekend, narrowly beat preeming laffer “Mr. Woodcock” for the No. 2 spot.

Lionsgate and Relativity Media’s “Yuma,” declining just 35% in its second frame, grossed an estimated $9.15 million from 2,667 locations; cume in the pic’s first 10 days is $28.5 million. Directed by James Mangold, oater stars Russell Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster.

New Line’s “Woodcock” grossed an estimated $9.10 million from 2,231 runs.

The third new wide release of the weekend, South Korean English-language “Dragon Wars,” didn’t show much fight. Pic came in at No. 6, grossing an estimated $4.8 million from 2,269.

There were also struggles on the specialty front. The Weinstein Co. and MGM had planned on expanding Richard Gere-Terrence Howard starrer “The Hunting Party” from four to 600 locations but aborted those plans last week after the film posted a disappointing opening gross of $39,609 from four engagements.

Pic, a blend of comedy and action set in post-war Bosnia, could expand to as many as 300 theaters next weekend, but TWC and MGM have not made any decisions. TWC has been working on tweaking the marketing campaign to emphasis the action, hoping to lure young males.

Likewise, Warner Bros. is looking for some testosterone to boost “Brave One” this coming weekend.

Foster pics like “Flightplan” and “Panic Room” were far less dark and serious than “Brave One.” Among her big films, opening is Foster’s lowest since “Anna and the King,” which debuted to $5.2 million in 1999.

“We are hoping for good word of mouth. When ‘Gladiator’ opened, there were no women in the audience. By the second weekend, there were,” said Warner Bros. prexy of distribution Dan Fellman, adding that the pic posted solid numbers in exit polls.

More than 70% of the “Brave One” aud was over 30.

On the specialty side, “Eastern Promises,” a London mob drama starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel, grossed $552,767 from 15 theaters in key markets — slightly better numbers than the opening of “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg’s last film.”Violence” bowed in September 2005 at $515,992 on its way to a domestic cume of $36.5 million.

Focus prexy of distribution Jack Foley said “Promises” had to secure a screen average of $25,000-$35,000 just to stay afloat, considering how crowded the calendar is. He added that the openings is one of the highest for a specialty pic in recent years based on the print count and reaffirms the loyalty of Cronenberg’s fan base.

“Ideally, what will happen now, just as with ‘History of Violence,’ (is that) word of mouth will spread as the picture begins to expand,” Foley said.

“Across the Universe” grossed $685,000 from 23 theaters. Taymor’s last film, “Frida,” took $205,996 when it opened in five locations on its way to a domestic cume of $28.5 million.

Taymor’s cut of the film put her at odds with Revolution’s Joe Roth, but Roth ultimately decided to go with her version.

Sony distribution topper Rory Bruer said the film skewed more female than male, but that more than 57% of the aud was under 25.

“I think visually and musically, it’s resonating with younger people. It certainly is fresh and daring and original. Next weekend, we will go to 400 theaters,” Bruer said.

Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” grossed an estimated $150,000 from nine theaters for a per-screen average of $16,666.

Warner Independent prexy of distribution Steven Friedlander said the drama attracted an older crowd and that Haggis — whose last directorial effort was Oscar winner “Crash” — was a strong draw. He added that it’s too early to say whether “Elah” worked because of its Iraq war backdrop, pointing out that it could be construed as more of a father-son drama.

“It was a strong opening in a very crowded marketplace. It played very well across the board, and our exit polls were great,” Friedlander said.

Elsewhere on the specialty front, Keira Knightley period epic “Silk” grossed an estimated $129,127 from 122 locations for a per-screen average of $1,058. First Look’s Michael Douglas starrer “King of California” grossed $37,054 from five locations for a per-screen average of $7,411.

Holdovers dominated the weekend’s top 10 chart, with Sony’s “Superbad” and “Halloween” coming in at Nos. 4 and 5. Universal’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” was No. 6, followed by Rogue Pictures’ “Balls of Fury,” New Line’s “Rush Hour 3″ and U’s “Mr. Bean’s Holiday.”

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