Coens’ ‘Burn’ fires up box office

New releases perform strong in crowded frame

Ethan and Joel Coen’s dark comedy “Burn After Reading” led a vibrant fall bloom at the domestic box office, debuting to an estimated $19.4 million from 2,651 theaters to give the siblings and Focus Features their biggest opening gross ever.

What a difference a week can make. The fall box office got off to its rockiest start in years over the Sept. 5-7 frame, but this weekend’s performance restored the luster that dominated much of the summer box office.

In a surprise show of strength, “Burn” and the three other new wide releases — Lionsgate’s “Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys,” Overture’s “Righteous Kill” and Picturehouse’s “The Women” — generally performed at the upper end of expectations despite the crowded marketplace for adult-skewing films. Overall B.O. revs of roughly $100 million mark only the second time in time in history that a non-Labor Day weekend in September has seen that sort of gross.

“Family That Preys” came in second behind “Burn.” Dramedy grossed an estimated $18 million from 2,070 runs and played largely to an African-American aud.

Jon Avnet’s Al Pacino-Robert De Niro cop drama “Righteous Kill,” from Overture Films, grossed an estimated $16.5 million from 3,152 screens to place No. 3. “Righteous” and “Burn” were rated R.

Marking the final release from Picturehouse, “The Women” — a remake of the 1939 George Cukor film — debuted to an estimated $10 million from 2,962 locations. Ironically, it’s the best opening ever for Bob Berney’s Picturehouse, and the widest.

Warner Independent Pictures also saw the release of its final film over the weekend, “Towelhead.” Warner Bros. and Time Warner decided to shutter both Picturehouse and Warner Independent when reorganizing New Line.

“Towelhead,” about an Arab-American girl navigating adolescence, was technically released byWarners. Specialty film nabbed the best per- location average of the weekend in grossing an estimated $53,000 from four runs for a per-theater average of $13,250.

Frame was up as much as 30% over last year, when “The Brave One” opened softly to $13.5 million, and up 47% over last weekend. This despite poor reviews for “Righteous” and “Women.” Tyler’s films generally aren’t screened for critics, since he has such a solid fan base.

“Burn” drew respectable notices, making it the best reviewed film of the weekend, although among top critics, reviews were mixed. Film was produced by Working Title and Focus.

Box office observers said the star power of “Burn,” “Righteous” and “Women” proved a big draw. The question now is how well will the four films hold up.

Focus claimed that Brad Pitt was the big draw for “Burn,” which also toplines George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich. It is only the fourth time that a Coen brothers’ film has opened wide after “Intolerable Cruelty,” “The Ladykillers” and “The Big Lebowski.” The former two, also comedies, opened to roughly $12 million.

Another advantage that “Burn” had going for it was the Oscar wins for the Coens’ previous film, “No Country for Old Men,” including best picture.

“Everything came together and there was just a great chemistry,” said Focus distribution topper Jack Foley. “I can’t say enough about this weekend. It really broke the doldrums, and it was great to lead the pack. It was our biggest opening ever, and for the Coens. I don’t think we’ve ever had a No. 1 picture before.”

Focus, like other specialty distribs, generally opens its films in limited runs before platforming. In this instance, Focus believed “Burn” had enough commercial appeal to open wide, although it didn’t open the pic in smaller markets, but rather, offered multiple screens in larger markets.

All four new films drew an older audience. Of “Burn’s” aud, 62% was over age 25. Focus said another key stat was the fact that 77% of the aud was between the ages of 18 to 49. Pic played slightly more female, or 51%.

“Family That Preys” and “Women,” both rated PG-13, played even more female, or 79% and 75%, respectively.

“Preys” is the first of Perry’s films to feature a white character in a leading role, but that didn’t seem to expand the audience beyond his fan base. Pic, somewhat more serious than some of Perry’s other films, is about two matriarchs from opposite sides of the tracks, and stars Alfre Woodard, Kathy Bates, Sanaa Lathan and Perry.

Film opened slightly below Perry’s two most recent movies, “Meet the Browns” ($20 million) and “Why Did I Get Married?” ($21 million).

“This is a great opening for us and for Tyler Perry. He’s now had five out of six movies open to No. 1 or No. 2. The exit polls show that ‘Prey’ will have excellent legs,” Lionsgate prexy of domestic distribution Steve Rothenberg said.

“Righteous Kill” benefited from the fact that it is the first major onscreen pairing of Pacino and De Niro. They’ve both been in two other movies together, “Heat” and “The Godfather: Part II,” but they only shared a few scenes together in “Heat” and none in the “Godfather” sequel.

The pic’s audience was evenly split between men and women, while 59% were over the age of 25. Overture noted that the pic enjoyed strong business among Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the moviegoing aud.

“Righteous,” which Overture acquired for roughly $12 million, was produced by Millennium Films and Emmett/Furla. It marks Overture’s fifth release and biggest opening, and comes closely on the heels of Don Cheadle-Guy Pearce political thriller “Traitor,” which has done solid business since bowing earlier this month. Like Lionsgate, Overture has two films on the top 10 B.O. chart.

“For a new company, that’s a good feeling,” Overture exec VP of distribution Kyle Davies said. “People wanted to see De Niro and Pacino together. I think that’s the biggest appeal.”

“The Women” — starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith and Eva Mendes — played strongest among older femmes, its target demo, although 40% of the aud was under age 25.

“We targeted our core audience, and they really showed up. We should do well on Sunday, because of football. Women will want to go to the movies,” Berney said.

Film’s opening is bittersweet for Berney, who has not yet announced what his next move will be.

Elsewhere at the domestic box office, Sony’s female-skewing “The House Bunny” continued to be a crowd pleaser, coming in No. 5 and grossing an estimated $4.3 million from 2,763 runs for a cume of $42.1 million in its fourth frame. That’s a slim 22% decline.

DreamWorks/Paramount’s R-rated comedy “Tropic Thunder” jumped the $100 million mark, declining 42% in its fifth frame to $4.2 million from 2,927 for a cume of $103 million.

“The Dark Knight” neared $520 million as it declined 27% to an estimated $4 million from 2,191 runs for a cume of $517.7 million.

Lionsgate’s “Bangkok Dangerous” fell off a steep 69% in its second frame to an estimated $2.4 million from 2,654 runs for a cume of $12.5 million in its first 10 days.

“Traitor” declined 50% in its third sesh to an estimated $2.1 million from 2,014 playdates for a cume of $20.7 million.

U’s actioner “Death Race” placed No. 10 for the weekend, declining 46% to an estimated $2 million from 2,007 runs for a cume of $33.2 million.

Among other specialty openers, New Style’s “Greetings” grossed $46,252 from 31 runs for a per-screen average of $1,492.