'Religulous' off to an impressive start

The weekend box office had something for everyone as Disney family pic “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” yapped its way to a $29 million bow, while Lionsgate’s irreverent Bill Maher docu “Religulous” and Sony Pictures Classics’ “Rachel Getting Married” got off to impressive starts on the specialty side.

Maher’s doc, directed by Larry Charles, grossed an estimated $3.5 million for a per-location average of $6,972, second best for any film on the top 10 B.O. chart after “Chihuahua” ($9,020), according to Rentrak.

“Rachel Getting Married,” opening in nine theaters in Gotham and Los Angeles, logged a sterling per-screen average of $33,659 in grossing an estimated $302,934.

“Religulous” had to compete with seven new wide releases — the most anyone can remember for one weekend.

Results were all over the map.

“Chihuahua,” playing in 3,215 runs, was a clear hit in a month when big grosses are usually reserved for horror and gore pics. Opening number is Disney’s best ever for October and a big part of the reason why the weekend was up a whopping 40% over the same sesh a year ago.

“In a market with seven new pictures, it’s terrific to be the No. 1 movie. It’s not easy to compete when there is that much distraction and people are being pulled in every direction,” said Disney prexy of distribution Chuck Viane.

In contrast, three of the new wide releases didn’t even crack the top 10 chart — Spyglass and Universal’s “Flash of Genius,” which grossed an estimated $2.3 million from 1,098 runs; Miramax’s “Blindness,” grossing an estimated $2 million off 1,690; and Autonomous Films and MGM’s Brit comedy “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People,” opening to an estimated $1.4 million from 1,750.

Doing solid business were Sony’s “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” which came in third, and Warner Bros./New Line’s Western “Appaloosa,” which placed No. 5 as it expanded nationwide after a two-week limited run.

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, debuted to an estimated $12 million from 2,421. It came in on the lower end of expectations but cost only $13 million to produce, according to Sony.

It wasn’t enough to beat DreamWorks/Paramount holdover “Eagle Eye,” which came in second in its soph sesh. Pic declined a slim 39% to an estimated $17.7 million from 3,516 for a 10-day cume of $54.6 million.

Warners/Village Roadshow romantic drama “Nights in Rodanthe” also held well, coming in No. 4 and declining 45% to an estimated $7.4 million from 2,702; cume is $25 million.

“Appaloosa,” starring Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Ed Harris, grossed an estimated $5 million from 1,045 runs for a per screen average of $4,799. Harris also directed.

“Religulous” wasn’t the only new title with cultural and political overtones. “An American Carol,” Vivendi’s biting satire of Michael Moore and leftist politics, opened to an estimated $3.8 million from 1,639 to come in No. 9.

Also, Christian-themed holdover “Fireproof,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films, placed No. 8 in its second sesh, declining just 40% to an estimated $4.1 million from 852 for a per-location average of $4,776 and a cume of $12.5 million.

It’s difficult to say what sort of legs the crop of new pics will have, but the going could get tough considering that four more films debut next weekend.

Disney is in an enviable position with “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” since it’s a family film. Of its aud, 77% were families, while dog lovers without kids also showed up: Couples made up 12% of the aud, teens 11%.

Younger females (62%) drove business for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”; 55% of the aud was under age 21.

“It’s a very good start for a movie that both critics and audiences really loved,” said Sony prexy of distribution Rory Bruer.

Universal and MGM both made it a point to note that they were only distributing “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear, and “How to Lose Friends,” starring Kirsten Dunst, Simon Pegg and Megan Fox.

Miramax said it was obviously disappointed over the performance of “Blindness,” starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal and directed by Fernando Meirelles. Grim storyline follows the aftermath of an epidemic that leaves nearly everyone blind.

Miramax was going to open the film in a limited run to build word of mouth before going wide but abandoned those plans.

“Religulous” and “Rachel” provided a much-needed jolt for the specialty box office after a long slump.

“These are tremendous grosses for a documentary, and we will continue to expand this coming weekend,” said Lionsgate distribution topper Steve Rothenberg. “Religulous” will go into an additional 100 markets or so Friday, he added.

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