‘Panther’ pounces on top of ‘Inside Man’

Lee pic nabs $11.6 mil from 1,400 engagements

“Inside Man” wasn’t able to quite knock off comedy remake “The Pink Panther” from the top spot overseas, but the pic did get an inside track on auds abroad and has legs to broaden its run, according to insiders.

Thanks to its name cast — UIP did not highlight helmer Spike Lee in its campaigns — heist thriller “Inside” hit $11.6 million from 1,400 engagements.

Meanwhile, “V for Vendetta” continued to prove unthreatening in its second frame, rounding up about $5.5 million in two dozen markets and pushing its offshore cume to more than $17.5 million.

But “Inside Man” — which opened day-and-date in 18 markets — wasn’t a hit everywhere: In Hong Kong, the UIP pic placed fourth and was a surprise laggard. Pic received largely positive reviews, but “Eight Below” — which follows eight pooches trapped in Antarctica — was the alpha dog.

“Inside’s” U.K. bow, however, was well timed, helping biz overall creep up 3% from the previous frame.

Other solid Blighty openers included horror entry “Hostel,” which like “Inside” did better than expected. U.K. biz remains far from scintillating, but there is now a wider variety of product available.

“Man” took top spot and posted the best screen average of any pic in the top 15. Blighty bookers describe the heist thriller as a “good, glossy-package movie” which will appeal to teens and adults.

Although director-driven movies can work well in the U.K., UIP sold the Spike Lee pic, as it did Stateside, on the strength of the cast.

Denzel Washington is not a big B.O. draw in Blighty, but Jodie Foster remains popular and Clive Owen is on the way to becoming a household name.

Opening was above expectations, which bookers attribute, in part, to “V for Vendetta’s” failure to make any impression.

“Hostel’s” opening also benefited from the under-performance of “V,” which slid a whopping 49% in its soph frame despite a very weak bow. “Hostel” finished 20% above expectations, which exhibs feel was due to the pic’s Quentin Tarantino endorsement.

“Panther,” meanwhile, clawed a worthy hold, dipping just 37% in its second frame. A lack of competish and familiarity with the brand is combining to benefit the Fox pic.

On the U.K.’s art scene, “Transamerica” delivered. Felicity Huffman starrer played well in upmarket locations and posted the third best per-screen average in the top 15 from 42 screens. Bookers suggest Huffman’s Oscar nom helped raised awareness, and credit Pathe with a well-pitched release.

In Germany, a slew of new movies helped boost B.O. by just over 15%, and Lee’s “Inside Man” toppled “Brokeback Mountain” from the top Teutonic spot.

“Viewers were definitely turned on by the A-list cast and a great trailer that really did its job,” says one German booker. “It’s a genre film that’s not really a genre film.”

Although it slipped to number two, “Brokeback” continues to do strong biz, thanks to positive word of mouth, exhib says.

Other new entries included Fox’s “The Hills Have Eyes” at No. 5, followed by Buena Vista’s “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”) and Constantin’s tyke-aimed “The Robber Hotzenplotz.”

“Panther,” in its third week in Germany, and “V,” in its second, sunk to ninth and 10th place, respectively.

One exhib says the latest Inspector Clouseau pic had initially benefited from a lack of competition while “V” simply failed to excite local auds.

Without “Inside Man” to help goose biz, and a period of discounted tickets ending and strikes across Paris, Gallic B.O. slipped a whopping 31%. Arthouses were particularly hard hit.

Strikes even froze access to certain areas of Paris, causing the city’s figures to drop 22% as compared with the same frame last year.

French charts were topped by four newcomers. As former champ “Panther” slipped off the scene, Hollywood fare “Final Destination 3” and “Big Momma’s House 2” ruled.

Coming in at No. 1, “Final Destination 3” took home $2.5 million in its first frame, with a haul reflecting a somewhat sluggish market.

Locals say “Momma’s House” was popular because it provided laughs while news in France was somber. Pic bowed at No. 2 with $1.7 million.

The desire for lighter, youth-driven pics is unsurprising given the grim circumstances that have dominated the mood in Gaul of late.

“I think people really want to be distracted right now,” says one Paris-based exhib. “And of course adolescent films and comedies are the natural choice.”

Coming in at No. 3 was French nature doc “The White Planet.”

B.O. also fell in Spain by 15% as compared with the previous frame. That drop came even as local behemoth “Volver,” by hometown hero Pedro Alomodovar, won its second straight frame.

Bookers pointed at the lack of strong releases as the main cause for this drop: “Firewall,” ranking No. 2, and “Hostel,” ranking fourth, were the biggest new entries of the weekend.

“Panther” has been a success story in Spain, though it’s now dropping like a stone after four weeks.

“A combination of Steve Martin’s appeal to Spaniards and the lack of other silly comedies may have been the clue for the success of a pic that has already made $2 million more than we expected,” one booker says.

Italian B.O. was slightly off as local pics continue to dominate. Three of the top five pics over the frame there were homegrown.

(Patrick Frater in Hong Kong, Archie Thomas in the U.K., Liza Klaussmann in France, Esther de Prado in Spain, Ed Meza in Germany and Sheri Jennings in Italy contributed to this report.)