‘Chihuahua’ still top dog at box office

Disney holdover beats out new releases

Warner Bros.’ Leonardo DiCaprio-Russell Crowe starrer “Body of Lies” and Universal’s “The Express” were sacked at the weekend box office as moviegoers once again resisted Middle Eastern terrorist pics and sports dramas.

Instead, Disney holdover “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” stayed at No. 1 in its second sesh, declining a slim 40% to an estimated $17.5 million from 3,218, while Sony Screen Gems’ horror title “Quarantine” came from behind to place No. 2 in its opening, grossing an estimated $14.2 million from 2,461 runs, according to Rentrak.

Keira Knightley starrer “The Duchess” made a big move to No. 9 as it expanded in its fourth frame.

Ridley Scott’s big-budget “Body of Lies,” about a conflicted CIA agent tracking terrorists in the Middle East, grossed an estimated $13.1 million from 2,710 to come in a disappointing No. 3. Many thought the pic, sold as an actioner, would win the sesh based on its star power alone.

U’s “Express,” about the first African-American college football player to win the Heisman Trophy, grossed an estimated $4.7 million from 2,808, putting it at No. 6.

Fox Walden’s family pic “City of Ember” went into the weekend with low expectations, opening just days after partners Fox and Walden Entertainment announced that Fox Walden would ends its run as a standalone marketing company and be brought into the Fox fold as a label. “Ember,” fully financed by Walden and distributed by Fox, grossed an estimated $3.2 million from 2,002 locations to place No. 10.

While tracking was correct for “Ember,” it was off for “Body of Lies” and “Express,” leaving their respective studios dismayed even as overall B.O. revenues were up 18% compared to Columbus Day weekend last year (which fell one week earlier) and even with the same frame last year.

Warners said the timing couldn’t have been worse for “Body of Lies,” given the worsening economic crisis and the national political debate over the war in Iraq.

“I think the state of affairs in our country are such that it was a tough weekend for a movie about terrorism and geopolitics,” said Dan Fellman, Warners prexy of distribution.

Warner Bros. has an economic problem of its own with the weak start for “Body of Lies.” Rival studios say the film cost north of $100 million, while Warner insiders counter that it was under $100 million. Studio does not have a co-financing partner on the film.

Pic, rated R for violence and intense scenes of torture, is based on the novel by journalist David Ignatius and adapted by “The Departed” scribe William Monahan. Storyline revolves around a CIA agent on the ground in the Middle East and his ruthless boss back home.

Last year, a host of films about the Iraq war and terrorism failed to achieve any traction at the B.O. Of those, “Body of Lies” is closest in scope to “The Kingdom,” which revolved around an FBI team that travels to Saudi Arabia. “Kingdom,” which bowed in September 2007, opened to $17.1 million and cumed $47.5 million domestically.

“Body of Lies” helmer Scott and Crowe were last in theaters with “American Gangster,” which opened to $45.6 million in October 2007 and cumed $130.2 million domestically.

“Body of Lies” skewed toward an older crowd, with 64% of the audience over age 30. Males made up 55% of the aud. It was much the same story for “Express,” with 61% of its audience over age 30 and 56% male. “Express” earned good reviews, while the notices were mixed for Scott’s film.

Universal prexy of distribution Nikki Rocco said she didn’t think the failing economy or politics was the reason that people stayed away from “Express,” based on the real-life story of football hero Ernie Davis and starring Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid. She said market conditions are difficult considering the glut of films.

“We’re still very proud to have brought this heroic story to the bigscreen,” Rocco said.

Pic cost roughly $38 million to produce.

A soft opening for fantasy adventure “City of Ember” was widely predicted. Fox Walden was never able to hit its full stride as a standalone venture; its strongest performer was “Nim’s Island,” which cumed $48 million domestically. Fox proper distributed all Fox Walden titles.

Fox said “City of Ember,” based on the bestselling book, appealed mainly to kids 10-12, the same demo that drove the book’s sales.

But that pre-teen and family market was corralled by “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”

“I think people are looking for lighter fare. They want to sit back, be entertained and laugh,” said Disney prexy of distribution Chuck Viane.

Meanwhile, Sony brass were happy with the perf of Screen Gems’ R-rated “Quarantine,” which cost roughly $12 million to produce.

“It was one of those things where the film had a great concept, was well executed and had great marketing,” said Rory Bruer, Sony prexy of distribution.

“Quarantine” attracted a young aud, with 41% under age 21. It skewed slightly male, or 52%.

Elsewhere at the B.O., specialty film “The Duchess” landed on the top 10 chart as it aggressively expanded from 127 theaters to 1,207. It grossed an estimated $3.32 million in its fourth frame to place No. 9. Cume is $5.6 million.

Warner Bros./New Line’s “Appaloosa,” which also began in a limited run, stayed on the top 10 chart for the second weekend in a row. The Western declined to an estimated $3.34 million from 1,290 theaters for a cume of $10.9 million in its fourth frame. Film placed No. 8.

Universal/Spyglass’ “Flash of Genius” and Vivendi’s satire “An American Carol” both fell off the top 10 chart in their second frames.

“Genius,” fully financed by Spyglass, fell 59% to an estimated $861,903 from 1,098 runs for a cume of $3.7 million in its first 10 days.

“American Carol,” a biting spoof of leftist politics and Michael Moore, declined 62% in its second frame to an estimated $1.5 million from 1,621 for a cume of $6 million.