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‘Chihuahua,’ ‘Nick’ enter full frame

'Religulous' off to strong start in early bow

Bill Maher’s irreverent docu “Religulous” was off to a strong start as it bowed early in Gotham, grossing $13,237 on Wednesday from two theaters for a per location average of $6,619.

“Religulous” goes nationwide on Friday, unspooling in 500 theaters. Lionsgate used the exclusive Gotham run to prompt reviews and build word of mouth.

It’s no wonder Lionsgate wanted to get out of the gate early. There are seven wide releases debuting at the domestic box office, in addition to several openers on the specialty side, including Maher’s docu. A counterpoint of sorts to “Religulous” is Vivendi’s feature “An American Carol,” a scathing Michael Moore spoof.

Disney’s family CGI-live action pic “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” going out in 3,215 runs, should have no problem charming its way to the top of the B.O. chart. Playing to both families and dog lovers could spell a sizeable opening.

Sony’s Michael Cera-Kat Dennings dramedy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” opening in 2,421 runs and catering to the young set, is looking strong as well.

After that, it’s likely to get dicey.

Other new wide releases are comedy “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” which MGM takes out in 1,750; Miramax’s “Blindness” (1,690); and Spyglass and Universal’s “Flash of Genius” (1,098). Vivendi takes “American Carol” out in 1,639.

Warners also enters the mix with Viggo Mortensen-Ed Harris-Renee Zellweger Western “Appaloosa,” which expands from a two-week limited run in Gotham, L.A. and Toronto to 1,045 theaters nationwide. New Line film has grossed $540,905 to date.

Distributors aren’t quite sure how the frame got so jam-packed, leaving no room for error. Studios are hoping that “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” do enough business to boost overall grosses.

New openers also will have to contend with holdovers “Eagle Eye,” which won last weekend in its bow, and “Burn After Reading.”

On the specialty side, Sony Pictures Classics opens Jonathan Demme’s dysfunctional family dramedy “Rachel Getting Married,” toplining Anne Hathaway, in nine theaters in L.A. and New York.

Other specialty openers include Eros’ “Drona,” opening in 90 theaters; Studio 18’s “Kidnap,” bowing in 60; and Truly Indie’s “Allah Made Me Funny,” opening in 11.

The B.O. showing for “Religulous” depends upon how well it does in markets outside of New York and some West Coast cities. Pic was directed by Larry Charles, who employed some of the same tactics he used when helming “Borat.”

Among the wide openers, “Genius” isn’t tracking well despite an aggressive marketing push. Film stars Greg Kinnear in the true story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, only to be ripped off by the big auto giants. Spyglass fully financed and produced the pic, with U only distributing.

“American Carol” was directed by David Zucker, whose credits include “Airplane!” and two “Naked Gun” pics. In a twist on Charles Dickens’ classic tale, spoof stars Kevin Farley as lefty director “Michael Malone,” who wants to abolish the Fourth of July, only to be visited by three ghosts.

“Blindness,” based on the tome by Jose Saramago, could face difficulties given its dark storyline. Starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal, pic revolves around the aftermath of an epidemic that renders nearly the entire population blind. Miramax was originally going to open the film in a limited run, and then go wide, but opted to skip the first.

“How to Lose Friends,” based on the bestselling book, stars Kirsten Dunst, Brit thesp Simon Pegg and Megan Fox. Comedy doesn’t have much buzz but could make up for a tepid B.O. showing in DVD sales.

On the foreign front, Disney’s going day-and-date with “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” in two major markets, Australia and Mexico, along with Colombia and South Africa. The Mouse House is staggering the international release of the family comedy over the next five months.

Universal’s overseas sensation “Mamma Mia!” is aiming for a fifth straight weekend victory with a combo of an Italian launch plus continued strong holdover biz. As of Wednesday, the tuner had topped $362 million offshore, including an eye-popping $121 million from the U.K., $46 million from Scandinavia, $36 million from Germany and $29 million from Australia.

A pair of actioners are expanding as Paramount widens “Eagle Eye” from 13 to 33 markets, led by Russia and Scandinavia, while U doubles the territories for “Death Race” from seven to 14, including Holland and Spain. Both pics are early in their international runs.

Par’s also going day-and-date with “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” in the U.K. and launching period drama “The Duchess” in Australia.

Sony’s launching “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” in Italy with foreign grosses at $94 million near the end of its run. The laffer looks likely to join “Click” as the second Adam Sandler pic to hit $100 million overseas.