Comedy only grosses $15.3 million

New Line’s R-rated basketball spoof “Semi-Pro” didn’t get off to a fast break at the weekend box office, grossing an estimated $15.3 million from 3,121 theaters in the lowest opening for a major Will Ferrell comedy in almost a decade.

Laffer won the weekend by default, since the other new pics opened in fewer than 1,200 theaters. A weak game by “Semi-Pro” — hampered by its restrictive rating — means that New Line founders Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne won’t be able to exit on a box office high note as their standalone studio is pared down to a label and folded into Warner Bros.

“Semi-Pro” was expected to do well over $20 million.

Sony had a much better courtside seat with King Henry VIII historical romancer “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which grossed an estimated $8.3 million from 1,166 runs in its debut for a lusty per-screen average of $7,118, according to Rentrak. Pic came in No. 4.

The sultry Boleyn sisters, played by Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, proved tough competition for Summit’s modern-day fairy tale, the Christina Ricci starrer “Penelope,” which grossed an estimated $4 million from 1,196 for a per-location average of $3,350.

“Penelope” tied for No. 8 with Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men,” which parlayed its awards victory into a 67% surge in business. “No Country” grossed an estimated $4 million from 2,037 runs for a cume of $69.6 million in its 17th frame. Among holdovers, Sony’s “Vantage Point” continued to thrill in its second weekend, easily placing No. 2 overall. Political thriller declined 43% in its second sesh to an estimated $13 million from 3,150; cume is $41 million in its first 10 days.

All in all, however, the weekend was down a steep 21% from the same frame last year, when Disney’s sleeper hit “Wild Hogs” grossed $40 million in its debut, according to Media by Numbers.

Explaining “Semi-Pro’s” woes, box office observers pointed to the film’s poor reviews and an R rating, which made it difficult for younger boys to see the pic; that demo helped fuel box office successes like Ferrell’s “Blades of Glory” and “Talladega Nights: Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” both rated PG-13.

Last March, “Blades of Glory” opened at $33 million. In August 2006, “Talladega” debuted at $47 million. Ferrell’s “Kicking and Screaming” and “Bewitched” both opened at roughly $20 million.

Most of the movies Ferrell has toplined have been rated PG-13; “Elf” was rated PG.

“Old School,” rated R like “Semi-Pro,” opened at $17.4 million in February 2004 on its way to grossing $75.2 million.

Among Ferrell’s dramas, 2006’s “Stranger Than Fiction” grossed $13.4 in its debut.

No one at New Line was available for comment Sunday. Going forward, Warners is expected to distribute all New Line pictures. There had been speculation for weeks that Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes wasn’t going to renew Shaye and Lynne’s contracts. On Thursday, their fate was sealed with the announcement that Shaye and Lynne are leaving, and that New Line won’t remain a standalone studio.

Last week, several New Line execs said they would have liked a PG-13 rating for “Semi-Pro” but that they made the decision to support the director and not cut offending language.

If “Semi-Pro” attracted male attention, “Boleyn” and “Penelope,” from Reese Witherspoon’s production shingle, both targeted younger females.

“Boleyn,” based on the bestselling book, drew an audience that was 72% female, with 66% under age 35.

“It’s a great start for the film, no doubt about it. I think it is something that will be around for a long time. It played so well throughout different regions of the U.S., as well as Canada. It didn’t matter if it was Albuquerque or Anchorage, the numbers were good,” Sony prexy of domestic distribution Rory Bruer said.

Bruer also extolled the performance of “Vantage Point,” saying it had a “terrific hold” that spoke both to the strength of the picture and Sony’s aggressive marketing campaign.

Summit prexy of domestic distribution Richie Fay said “Penelope” performed in line with expectations. He said the company was happy with the weekend’s results and pointed to a 57% Friday-to-Saturday jump, indicating the strength of the film among younger girls.

“It is a very good indication that our target demo was coming out for the movie,” Fay said. “The mother-daughter aspect and young teens is really what allowed the film to get to its number.”

Fay conceded that “Boleyn” likely took some attention away from “Penelope,” but said there was enough room for both.

Summit has limited exposure on “Penelope,” a pickup; company did invest some $10 million in marketing costs. Movie is only the second released by Summit’s new distribution division. “Never Back Down” will be the first inhouse production to see release when it goes out March 14.

Among other holdovers, Paramount’s family entry “The Spiderwick Chronicles” continued to please, coming in No. 3 and declining only 33% to an estimated $8.7 million from 3,654 runs; cume is $55 million in its third weekend.

Also showing strong legs was 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi actioner “Jumper,” which placed No. 5. Pic declined 40% in its third frame to an estimated $7.6 million from 3,128 theaters for a cume of $66.8 million.

Coming in No. 6 was Disney’s “Step Up 2 the Streets,” which fell 41% to an estimated $5.7 million from 2,528 runs for a cume of $48.6 million in its third weekend. At No. 7 was Warner Bros.’ romance-adventure “Fool’s Gold,” which declined 28% in its fourth frame to an estimated $4.7 million from 2,845; cume is $59 million.

Fox Searchlight’s specialty hit “Juno” came in No. 10, declining 19% to an estimated $3.3 million from 1,631 runs for a cume of $135.1 million in its 13th frame.

Lionsgate’s Larry the Cable Guy starrer “Witless Protection” and MGM/Sidney Kimmel’s teen dramedy “Charlie Bartlett” placed outside the top 10 in their second weekends.

“Witless” grossed an estimated $1 million from 1,354 runs for a per-location average of $739 and cume of $3.5 million. “Bartlett” declined to an estimated $818,000 from 1,122 theaters for a per-engagementaverage of $729 and cume of $3.2 million.

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