‘United’ flies after all

9/11 drama tops forecasts, lands at No. 2

“United 93,” Paul Greengrass’ depiction of a Sept. 11 hijacking, did better than expected at the weekend box office, while Lionsgate’s “Akeelah and the Bee” fell a bit under the radar despite a high-profile promotion by Starbucks. “United 93” had been receiving ambiguous responses from the public, with some embracing the pic as a way to honor those who died in the terrorist attacks and others avoiding it and the painful memories it could bring back. The film grossed $11.6 million from 1,795 theaters, according to Universal.

That was good for second place as Sony’s Robin Williams laffer “RV” bowed to $16.4 million from 3,639 locations.

Lionsgate’s “Akeelah and the Bee” bowed in eighth place with $6.3 million.

Pic is the first released in partnership with Starbucks, which has been advertising “Akeelah” in its locations nationally. Distrib chief Steve Rothenberg said strong audience ratings in exit polls has made Lionsgate confident that the film will continue to play strong.

“We’re just going to sit back and wait for the good word of mouth to spread. As with ‘Crash,’ we hope this is a movie people will be coming to see week after week,” he said.

Speaking about “United 93,” U distrib prexy Nikki Rocco said, “The opening is a testament to the American people who spoke out loud and clear that they were ready for the film and it wasn’t too soon.”

While there was some speculation that New York theaters would not do as much biz on the film as elsewhere, Rocco said, “The usual top 10 markets were the top markets,” referring to Gotham and other big cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Studio exit polls showed that 63% of auds said the 9/11 theme and the story were their top two reasons for going to the film. Also, 71% of auds reported going to the film a with family member, which studio said reflected the cathartic nature of the pic.

Demographically, aud skewed older, with 71% over age 30, and was pretty evenly divided by gender with 52% female.

“RV” is Sony’s fifth film of the year to open at No. 1. Distrib topper Rory Bruer said, “We’re very pleased with the opening” and noted that exit polls showed strong support from families. According to the surveys, 56% of the aud consisted of parents or their children, with 52% of the crowds under age 25. Aud skewed slightly femme at 56%.

Disney was likewise pleased with the opening for gymnastics pic “Stick It.” Distrib chief Chuck Viane said, “Going into the weekend, a lot of people thought we would be way down the line. NRG was predicting $6 million to $9 million, so to come in over $11 million is really impressive.”

“Stick” stuck that landing with strong support from femmes, with 73% of the aud female.

Among the holdovers, Sony’s “Silent Hill” took an unsurprising 54% drop off its opening, grossing $9.3 million for the three-day span. Cume is $34.2 million.

Fox’s “The Sentinel” dropped a steep 47% in its sophomore session, with its $7.6 million weekend gross lifting cume to $25.5 million.

Overall, the last weekend of spring continued the season’s strong streak. Nielsen EDI estimates the weekend’s total box office at $101 million, up 11% from last year’s comparison weekend. That lifts the year-to-date box office to $2.603 billion, a 4.7% gain over 2005.

In the specialty arena, Fox Searchlight watched “Water” open to $60,400 on five screens in Gotham, L.A. and San Francisco, averaging $12,072 per engagement. Label plans to expand the pic Friday to seven new cities, as well as new bookings in the first three markets.

Rialto’s reissue of “Army of Shadows” opened to $12,600 on its first Gotham screen. Pic moves to L.A. and Washington, D.C., on May 12. Lastly, Magnolia opened “The Lost City” on 18 screens and saw a gross of $180,000.