Conspiracy thriller swoops in for $29.2 million

DreamWorks/Paramount’s thriller “Eagle Eye” thrilled with a debut of $29.2 million from 3,510 theaters, reviving the fall box office and scoring the best opening since the heat of summer and the fourth best bow ever for September.

The casualty of the weekend was Spike Lee’s WWII film “Miracle at St. Anna,” which opened to a disappointing $3.5 million from 1,185 to come in at No. 9, according to Rentrak.

Overall, the frame was up 6% in grosses over the same weekend a year ago. The box office was generally robust despite Friday night’s presidential debate, which did take attention away from films favored by adults, evidenced by big Friday-Saturday gains.

Movies appealing primarily to adults saw even bigger Friday-to-Saturday gains, leaving no doubt that the McCain-Obama showdown kept people in front of the televisions. Focus Features’ “Burn After Reading” was up a staggering 87% Friday-over-Saturday.

“Eagle Eye” easily topped the B.O., while Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures’ Diane Lane-Richard Gere romantic drama “Nights in Rodanthe” placed No. 2 in its bow, grossing an estimated $13.6 million from 2,704 runs.

The biggest surprise of the sesh was Samuel Goldwyn/IDP’s Christian-themed pic “Fireproof,” which grossed an estimated $6.5 million from only 839 theaters and hit No. 4. Toplining Kirk Cameron — the former “Growing Pains” star who now has his own evangelical ministry — “Fireproof” saw the strongest opening among recent faith-based films.

Other titles opening in a limited number of runs weren’t as lucky. Lionsgate/Roadside Attraction’s Iraqi soldier drama “The Lucky Ones,” from filmmaker Neil Burger, grossed an estimated $208,000 from 425 theaters for a per-location average of $489.

Fox Searchlight’s Anjelica Huston-Sam Rockwell dramedy “Choke,” based on Chuck Palahniuk’s tome, bowed to a soft $1.3 million from 435 theaters for a per-screen average of $3,069.

In grabbing $29.2 million, “Eagle Eye” solidifies Shia LaBeouf’s box office appeal. Pic reteamed LaBeouf and filmmaker D.J. Caruso, who directed “Disturbia” for DreamWorks.

Only three September openers have done more biz: “Sweet Home Alabama” ($30 million), “Rush Hour” ($33 million) and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” ($30 million). “Eagle Eye” narrowly bested “Jackass: Number Two” ($29 million).

Imax, which played “Eagle Eye” in 85 theaters, saw its best opening gross ever for a film in September. Imax ticket sales totaled $1.7 million.

“Eagle Eye,” which opened only days after DreamWorks and Paramount officially announced their divorce, appealed to all demos and ages. Audience was equally split between women and men. Pic, which was poorly reviewed, cost $80 million to produce.

“It’s a good ride, and an audience pleasure. You get to suspend disbelief and just go for it,” DreamWorks spokesman Chip Sullivan said.

Aud was equally split among people above and below 25, and “Eagle Eye” saw a strong Friday-to-Saturday jump of 27%.

Sony holdover “Lakeview Terrace,” which came in No. 3 for the weekend in its second frame, saw a 70% Friday-to-Saturday jump. Film’s weekend gross was an estimated $7 million from 2,467 runs; cume is $25.7 million in its first 10 days.

The Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading” continued to please in its third weekend as it placed fifth, declining 44% to an estimated $6.2 million from 2,649 runs for a cume of $45.5 million.

Warner Bros. said the female-skewing “Nights in Rodanthe” proved to be potent counterprogramming. Women made up 75% of the audience, while 78% of the aud was over 30.

Film came in on the higher end of expectations and beat Lane’s “Must Love Dogs” ($12.9 million) and “Under the Tuscan Sun” ($9.7 million).

“It struck a chord with a particular group, and we’re pretty happy,” Warner Bros. exec VP of distribution Jeff Goldstein said. “We’ve been out in the marketplace telling people about this movie since May, when we played the trailer before ‘Sex and the City.’ “

Goldstein said the debate did impact traffic in big cities in the West and Northeast but didn’t seem to be as much of a factor in the middle of the country.

“Fireproof” wasn’t much of a player on either coast. It saw its best business in America’s heartland and in the Southeast, Goldwyn distribution topper Michael Silberman said.

Goldwyn launched its grassroots marketing campaign for the film nearly a year ago, reaching out to churches and screening the movie. The fact that Cameron has his own ministry, the Way of the Master, also aided in boosting awareness. Cameron and director Alex Kendrick also made the rounds on television, appearing on shows including “Dr. Phil,” “Today” and “Fox and Friends.”

Goldwyn also released the faith-based “Facing the Giants,” likewise directed by Kendrick. That pic, about high school football, opened to $1.3 million on its way to cuming $11 million domestically.

“Fireproof” revolves around a firefighter whose marriage is on the rocks. He accepts the “Love Dare,” i.e., to love God for 40 days. A companion book to the film entitled “The Love Dare” was released in advance of the pic.

“We have always looked to be in the niche biz and try to find films that audiences are genuinely hungry for,” Silberman said.

At the same time, Silberman said the subject of marriage is much broader than high school football, and he believes “Fireproof” could extend its reach beyond the faith-based community.

“St. Anna” marked Lee’s first foray into war pics. Film is based on the real-life story of an African-American battalion fighting in Italy during WWII.

Film skewed male and older. Some 80% of the aud was over age 25, while 57% was male. Like other adult-skewing films, “St. Anna” saw a big jump from Friday to Saturday, or 62%.

Disney didn’t suggest that the debate had anything to do with the film’s ultimate performance, although it was encouraged by the Friday-to-Saturday jump.

Of the film’s gross, a full 20% came from New York and L.A..

Mouse House had expected “St. Anna” to do about what the two previous films it released for Lee, “He Got Game” ($7.6 million) and “Summer of Sam” ($6 million), took in. Lee’s last film, Universal’s “Inside Man,” debuted to $28.9 million.

Elsewhere on the top 10 chart, Exodus Films and MGM’s holdover toon “Igor” benefited from being the only fresh family film in the marketplace, declining just 30% in its second weekend to an estimated $5.5 million from 2,341 for a cume of $14.3 million.

On the specialty side, holdovers fared better than new offerings.

Paramount Vantage’s “The Duchess” and Warner Bros.’ “Appaloosa” both remained players in their second frames. “Duchess” grossed an estimated $570,000 as it expanded from seven to 55 locations for a per-screen average of $10,364 and cume of $836,932. “Appaloosa,” which opens nationwide wide Oct. 3, grossed an estimated $145,00 from 14 locations for a per location of $10,357 and cume of $478,702.

In its seventh sesh, The Weinstein Co. and MGM’s Woody Allen pic “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” grossed an estimated $674,000 from 442 runs for a per-location average of $1,521 and cume of $20.4 million.

Among other new offerings, Magnolia’s “Humboldt County” —which was simultaneously available on video-on-demand — grossed an estimated $28,000 from 10 runs for a per-location average of $2,800.

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