Paramount pic nabs top spot with $22 million

Becoming the biggest box office phenomenon of the year, Paramount’s microbudgeted horror pic “Paranormal Activity” toppled “Saw VI” to win the weekend at $22 million from 1,945 theaters and hit an out-of-this-world cume of $62.5 million.

“Saw VI,” coming in No. 2, opened to an estimated $14.8 million from 3,036 theaters — an opening gross less than half that of any of the previous four films in the horror franchise. It also came in below the original “Saw” (2004), which opened just north of $18 million. Lionsgate was quick to assure that the franchise will continue.

Even without competish from “Paranormal Activity,” “Saw VI” also showed franchise wear overseas, where it grossed $5 million from 800 runs in eight markets. In the U.K., it came in No. 2 behind Disney holdover “Up.” Worldwide opening total for “Saw VI” was $19.8 million.

“Up,” the Mouse House and Pixar toon, won the weekend foreign crown with $19 million from 4,789 runs in 26 territories; international cume is $324.2 million.

“Paranormal Activity” doesn’t begin its run internationally until later this month.

Elsewhere at the domestic B.O., the three other new nationwide releases all came in on the lower end of expectations and couldn’t compete with a healthy crop of holdovers.

Summit Entertainment’s family entry “Astro Boy” came in No. 6, grossing an estimated $7 million from 3,014 theaters. Toon was fully financed and produced by Imagi Entertainment.

Universal’s Halloween entry “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” grossed an estimated $6.3 million from 2,754 runs to place No. 8. Film was co-financed by U and Relativity Entertainment and produced for $40 million.

Released in far fewer runs, Fox Searchlight’s Amelia Earhart biopic “Amelia” grossed a solid, but hardly spectacular, $4 million from 818 theaters for a per-location average of $4,921. Driven by older women, the pic’s fate will depend upon its legs. “Amelia,” directed by Mira Nair and starring Hilary Swank, placed No. 11 for the sesh.

Claiming the highest per-location average of the weekend was Sony Pictures Classics’ specialty title “An Education,” which grossed an estimated $408,002 from 31 screens in its third frame for a cume of $980,896.

Among new prestige titles, Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” grossed an estimated $73,500 from six locations for a per-location average of $12,250. Freestyle Releasing’s Uma Thurman starrer “Motherhood” struggled in opening to an estimated $57,544 from 48 runs for a per-location average of $1,199.

Overall, ticket sales were up 13% at the domestic B.O. While “Paranormal Activity’s” perf was by far the headline of the frame, holdovers doing good biz included Warner Bros.’ “Where the Wild Things Are,” which declined 56% in its soph sesh to $14.4 million from 3,735 runs; cume is $54 million. Decline confirmed that the Spike Jonze film, while based on the bestselling children’s book, is playing older than a family film.

“Wild Things” came in No. 3 for the frame, followed by Overture Films’ “Law Abiding Citizen,” which fell just 40% to an estimated $12.7 million from 2,890 runs for a cume of $40.3 million in its second outing.

Universal’s laffer “Couples Retreat” continued to rock, declining a slim 36% to an estimated $11.1 million from 3,074 theaters for a cume of $78.2 million in its third frame.

Above all others in the marketplace — or any other film in recent memory — “Paranormal Activity” stands to be the most profitable, having cost Par only $300,000 for domestic distribution rights. International rights were sold off, although Par would have world rights to any sequel.

The coming weekend should prove whether “Paranormal Activity” has a shot at matching the $140.5 million grossed domestically by “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), generally regarded as one of the most profitable films of all time, having cost $25,000 to produce (“Paranormal’s” budget is even lower, at $11,000-$15,000).

“Blair Witch” grossed $108.1 million overseas for a total worldwide haul of $248.6 million, but like “Paranormal Activity,” rights were split overseas, so Artisan collected only domestic grosses.

It’s already legend how “Paranormal Activity” began as a DreamWorks project but was never released when DreamWorks was owned by Par. After the divorce, the project went to Par. Former DreamWorks exec Adam Goodman, now Par’s prexy of production, urged the studio to go ahead and release the horror film, produced by Jason Blum.

“I couldn’t be happier with our team’s great work. Adam Goodman believed in this movie and championed it from the first day he saw it. He recognized it was a great story with commercial potential, and made sure it had a home in our schedule and the release it deserved,” Par chair Brad Grey said Sunday. He also praised the film’s marketing and distribution teams.

Studio, which said it has spent $10 million on marketing up to this point —far less than the usual pricetag — decided to launch the film in 33 midnight runs only. Based on demand alone, the studio expanded the film to 160 runs two weekends ago and 763 last weekend, when it came in No. 3 at $19 million with a boffo per-screen average of $25,711. This weekend’s average was still impressive at $11,311.

Before the film left DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg aided the filmmakers with a new ending.

“No one knows the ceiling on this thing. It’s not even on 2,000 runs yet,” one rival exec said. (Par expands by 400 or 500 runs Halloween weekend.)

A big problem for Lionsgate was that it didn’t see “Paranormal Activity” coming and thus couldn’t alter its marketing plan.

Lionsgate prexy of distribution David Spitz said “Saw VI” remains very profitable for the studio and Twisted Pictures, since the film cost $15 million to produce. He said the franchise, which launched the category of horror known as torture porn, remains the most profitable horror franchise in history, having grossed more than $340 million at the domestic B.O. alone.

“This will not be the swan song for the ‘Saw’ franchise,” Spitz said.

Also, “Saw VI” will continue to roll out overseas.

Like previous “Saw” titles, “Saw VI” drew a younger audience, with 65% under age 25. Males made up 52% of the aud. “Paranormal Activity,” by contrast, drew a more balanced audience in terms of age and showed particular strength in people 17-35.

Searchlight’s “Amelia” was the clear choice among older females, who made up more than 60% of the audience. Film played well across top markets despite generally poor reviews. The studio specialty arm believes the film did well enough to have legs. The pic also stars Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor.

Summit and Universal said their financial risk on “Astro Boy” and “The Vampire’s Assistant,” respectively, was minimized. But more so for Summit, since “Astro Boy” was fully financed by Imagi.

Summit prexy of distribution Richard Fay said “Astro Boy” succeeded in getting young boys and fathers, but not enough of them.

Universal prexy of domestic distribution Nikki Rocco said “The Vampire’s Assistant,” based on the bestselling book, was co-financed equally by U and Relativity Media. The film cost $40 million to produce.

“Beyond the slight disappointment that it would do more, the film was made for a responsible budget,” Rocco said.

Audience for “Vampire’s Assistant” was split evenly among moviegoers over and under age 25. Pic had shades of playing like a family title, since 40% of those 35 and older were parents, but teens also showed up along with kids.

At the specialty box office, other new openers included Samuel Goldwyn’s comedy “Untitled,” which grossed $19,145 from three locations for a per-location average of $6,382.

The Metropolitan Opera’s live high-def broadcast of “Aida” in 600 runs grossed an estimated $2.2 million for a per-location average of 3,667.

Among other specialty holdovers, Sony Pictures Classics scored a per-location average of $13,161 for “An Education” in its third frame. Overseas, 20th Century Fox Intl.’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” opened in the U.K. to $2.5 million from 483 runs to take No. 3 behind “Up” and “Saw VI.”

Overall, Disney also took the No. 2 spot internationally with “G-Force,” which grossed $8 million from 35 theaters in 3,013 markets for a cume of $138.9 million.

“Saw VI” appeared likely to have taken the No. 3 spot on the foreign B.O. chart for the weekend.

Universal Pictures Intl.’s “Inglourious Basterds” grossed $4.5 million from 2,640 runs in 50 markets for a foreign cume of $173.5 million.

U’s “Couples Retreat” grossed $3.9 million from 950 runs in seven territories for a foreign cume of $17.2 million.

And Fox’s “Agora” grossed another $2.8 million in Spain for a boffo cume of $21 million in its third weekend of play in that territory.

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