The ‘Sith’ hits the fans

U.S. mines $159 million

Grossing $158.5 million in its first four days, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” finished George Lucas’ sci-fi epic like it started in 1977, raising the bar for blockbusters.

Released day-and-date by 20th Century Fox in 115 territories, “Sith” has already taken in $303 million, a worldwide opening record.

Opening in 3,661 theaters with a massive 9,000-plus print count domestically, “Sith” claimed a quiver of records, including the largest four-day opening, outpacing 2003’s “The Matrix Reloaded,” which rang up $134.3 in its four-day opening span.

“Sith” began setting records as soon as it started playing at midnight Thursday morning. Those shows brought in a record $16.9 million. The full-day Thursday gross of $50 million handily claimed the single-day gross title, setting aside the $44.8 million earned on its opening Saturday.

Still, “Spider-Man’s” $114.8 million opening record remains the gold standard for Friday-Sunday spans, since “Sith” took in $108.5 million over the span. And on the all-time opening weekend chart, ignoring the duration of the “weekend,” the “Sith” number is second behind the $180 million earned by “Spider-Man 2” last summer on a six-day opening stretch that ran from Wednesday through Monday.

But Fox pointed out that with the help of its record-setting opening Thursday grosses, “Sith” earned more than any other film in its first two days ($83.8 million), its first three days ($124.7 million) and four days ($158.5 million).

“These records,” Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder said, “have always, in my mind, belonged to ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Exit surveys showed the aud skewed male and older, with 58% of the aud male and 52% over age 25. Snyder said that data came only from Friday shows and he expects the aud to even up a bit by gender once the Saturday data is included.

“Sith” debut is by far the best in the “Star Wars” prequel cycle. “The Phantom Menace,” which has been the biggest grosser with $431 million under its belt, opened on a Wednesday in 1999 and took in $105.7 million in its first five days. Three years later, “Attack of the Clones” eventually cumed far less than “Phantom” with $302 million despite a stronger opening of $110 million over four days after opening on a Thursday.

As a historical note, “Return of the Jedi,” the only pic in the original trilogy to debut in wide release with 1,002 theaters, grossed $33.7 million through its first five days when it bowed on a Wednesday in 1983.

Despite the monster bow by “Sith,” total box office over the weekend was down against last year for the 13th straight week. Nielsen EDI estimates total biz at $160 million, down 6% against last year, when “Shrek 2” led the frame with its $108 million three-day total.

But “Sith’s” $50 million Thursday (which isn’t included in the weekend total) helped narrow the gap between the 2005 year-to-date total and 2004’s. Total grosses for the year are estimated by EDI at $2.951 billion, 6% behind 2004. At the end of last weekend, box office was running 7% behind last year.

Despite “Sith’s” dominance of the marketplace — it accounted for about two-thirds of all ticket sales this weekend — there were several strong holdover perfs. New Line’s “Monster-in-Law” dipped just 38% from last week’s opening to $14.4 million to claim the No. 2 spot. Cume on the Jennifer Lopez-Jane Fonda laffer is $44.2 million.

Lions Gate’s “Crash” displayed some remarkable resiliency, dipping just 22% in its third week to $5.5 million, good for fourth place. Paul Haggis-helmed pic has cumed $27.6 million.

Lions Gate noted that “Crash,” which played 1,905 this weekend, has been in the top five for all three weeks of its release. The last time a pic stayed in the top five for three weeks without ever reaching No. 1 was late last year with “Million Dollar Baby,” which Haggis scripted.

Soph sesh of Universal’s “Kicking & Screaming” brought in $10.5 million in a 48% drop, ranking it third for the frame and raising cume to $34 million.

“Star Wars” seemed to take the biggest bite out of other male-skewing titles in the marketplace. Rogue’s “Unleashed” withered 65% in its second week to $3.8 million.

Fox’s “Kingdom of Heaven” dropped 65% to $3.4 million in its third week. Ridley Scott historical epic has cumed $41 million.

Disney sci-fi pic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” took a hefty 60% slide in its fourth week to $2 million. Cume on the cult classic adaptation is $46.9 million.

Limited scope

In the limited arena, Paul Schrader’s version of “The Exorcist” prequel didn’t find much traction in its belated release by Warner Bros. Financed by Morgan Creek and dubbed “Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist,” pic grossed $119,000 from 110 engagements, an average of $1,082 per screen.

Paramount Classics’ doc “Mad Hot Ballroom” held strong in its second week with $150,000 from an expanded run of 15 screens. Cume is $217,000.

“Mysterious Skin,” from Tartan and TLA Releasing, continued its strong exclusive run at Gotham’s Film Forum with $12,605 in its third week. On Friday pic expands in Gotham and opens in L.A. and San Francisco.

Sony Classics’ “Layer Cake,” from helmer Matthew Vaughn, grossed $137,497 in its second week, averaging $4,911 on its 28 screens. Brit caper pic has cumed $253,630.

ThinkFilm’s doc “Tell Them Who You Are” had $10,670 from four screens in its second week, averaging of $2,668 and pushing cume to $16,011.

Magnolia’s doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” crossed $2 million in its fifth week or release. Playing on 151 this weekend, pic grossed $340,000 for an average of $2,252.

IFC’s “Brothers,” in its third week, grossed $50,592 from 24 screens, averaging $2,108 per venue and bringing cume to $81,825.