Moviegoers' eyes were on "The Watcher" as Hollywood's fall season got off to an unexciting start.
Box office levels across the board were considerably less than insiders had anticipated going into the weekend. With many studio executives out of town attending the Toronto Film Festival, few insights were offered as to what went wrong. Overall, key films were estimated to have grossed about 22 percent less than this time last year.
With televised coverage of the Olympics expected to provide stiff competition from Sept. 15 through Oct. 1, Hollywood is holding back on opening high-profile films in September. That will almost certainly be reflected in ticket sales for the month.
"With the Olympics and everything else, I think it's going to be a lousy fall," predicted one insider.
"Watcher," an R-rated psychological thriller from Universal, needed only single digit grosses to capture first place. It opened to a calm estimated $9.1 million at 2,742 theaters ($3,320 per theater).
With Universal having reportedly picked "Watcher" up from Interlight for only $5 million, it won't have to do much more business to turn a profit for the studio.
"It is what it is," an insider explained Sunday morning. "It's one of those movies that if you target it, you can do fine -- especially on a weekend like this when there isn't a whole lot of competition."
USA Films' R-rated dark comedy "Nurse Betty" was a solid number two, opening to a healthy estimated $7.27 million at 1,459 theaters ($4,981 per theater).
"Betty's" per-theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide release last weekend.
"The picture performed extremely well," USA Films distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning. "In Manhattan, it was through the roof. San Francisco, Seattle and Portland played beautifully, too. An upscale audience for sure. The high-end people came out massively, and we had a lot of good numbers all over the country - even as far as Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and runs in New Orleans were very strong, with $7,000 and $8,000 weekend grosses on the picture."
USA isn't planning to go wider with "Betty" next weekend. "It's the right number," Foley noted.
The studio's exit polls were very positive, he added: "It's playing to males and females over 25 very, very nicely. It was females 51 percent and males 49 percent. The response to the film is quite high. The majority of the people (attending) are over 35, which is exactly what the poling said. The Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) were about 60 percent. A real good opening."
Looking at how the film played from Friday to Saturday, Foley pointed out that "the overall jump was 50 percent. The jump from Friday to Saturday in the high-end theaters was anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent and well over that. We should have a good day today (Sunday)."
The encouraging launch for "Betty" was not only good news for USA Films, but also for Universal, which actually owns the film. Insiders said Universal had acquired "Betty" as part of its purchase of PolyGram. Universal is reportedly paying USA a distribution fee to release "Betty" domestically.
Universal and Beacon Pictures' PG-13-rated comedy "Bring It On" fell two pegs to third place in its third week with a less cheerful estimated $6.55 million (-43 percent) at 2,416 theaters (+6 theaters; $2,710 per theater). Its cume is approximately $44.5 million.
With only about $10 million invested in "Bring," Universal is already seeing profits from it.
New Line's R-rated fantasy suspense thriller "The Cell" slid two rungs to fourth place in its fourth week with a less lively estimated $3.48 million (-51 percent) at 2,476 theaters (+32 theaters; $1,403 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.2 million.
"I think it should wind up north of $60 million," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning.
Warner Bros. PG-13 sci-fi action adventure "Space Cowboys" dropped two notches in its sixth week to fifth place with an aging estimated $3.32 million (-51 percent) at 2,607 theaters (-188 theaters; $1,273 per theater). Its cume is approximately $78.8 million, heading for $90-100 million in domestic theaters.
"We've got a shot at $100 million," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "I would say it looks right now like $90 million unless we get some kick at the end of the year (from awards nominations). We're not going to go to video (quickly). We're going to hang on and wait and see Top Ten lists and all of that."
DreamWorks PG-13-rated supernatural thriller "What Lies Beneath" held on to sixth place in its eighth week with a slower estimated $2.9 million (-38 percent) at 2,166 theaters (-241 theaters; $1,342 per theater). Its cume is approximately $142.5 million.
"Beneath" is a co-production of DreamWorks, which is releasing it domestically, and 20th Century Fox, which is distributing it internationally.
Paramount's R-rated Spike Lee documentary comedy "The Original Kings of Comedy" held on to seventh place in its fourth week with a less funny estimated $2.5 million (-47 percent) at 997 theaters (+45 theaters; $2,508 per theater). Its cume is approximately $32.0 million.
Warner Bros.' R-rated martial arts drama "The Art of War" from Franchise Pictures fell four trenches to eighth place in its third week with a quieter estimated $2.4 million (-60 percent) at 2,370 theaters (-260 theaters; $1,013 per theater). Its cume is approximately $25.0 million.
Artisan Entertainment's opening of its R-rated suspense drama "The Way of the Gun" was ninth with a disappointing estimated $2.2 million at 1,515 theaters ($1,452 per theater).
Insiders had expected "Gun" to open to more than twice as much business and make the Top Five.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Dimension Films' R-rated fantasy action adventure sequel "Highlander: Endgame," down five pegs in its second week with a slow estimated $1.8 million (-65 percent) at 1,545 theaters (+2 theaters; $1,165 per theater). Its cume is approximately $9.0 million.
OTHER OPENINGS This weekend also saw New Line's R-rated urban appeal drama "Turn It Up" arrive in a tie for 19th place to a slow estimated $0.6 million at 661 theaters ($908 per theater). Its cume after 5 days is approximately $0.8 million.
Directed by Robert Adetuyi, "Turn" stars Pras and Ja Rule.
Dimension Films' opening of its R-rated urban appeal drama "Backstage" placed 23rd with an unexciting estimated $0.51 million at 322 theaters ($1,583 per theater). Its cume after 5 days is approximately $0.7 million.
Directed by Chris Fiore, it stars Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man and Redman.
Also arriving was MGM's limited release reissue of its 1984 comedy "This Is Spinal Tap," placing 28th with a restrained estimated $54,000 at 10 theaters ($5,400 per theater).
Columbia's R-rated drama "Anatomy" checked into 29th place with a lifeless estimated $6,000 at 8 theaters ($750 per theater).
Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, it starsFranka Potente and Benno Furmann.
SNEAK PREVIEWS DreamWorks held 125 sneak previews in the Top Ten markets Saturday night of its R-rated dramatic comedy "Almost Famous."
A DreamWorks spokesperson said the sneaks played to 60 percent capacity. Those on hand -- 50 percent males and 50 percent females and 70 percent over 25 - scored it 88 percent in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good).
DreamWorks said it was "very pleased" with how the sneaks went and will hold 600-700 sneaks of "Almost" this Saturday night (Sept. 16) in the remaining Top 100 markets.
Using a distribution pattern similar to what it did very effectively this time last year with "American Beauty," DreamWorks plans to launch "Almost" in New York and Los Angeles on Wed., Sept. 13, and then put it in limited release Sept. 15 at 125-140 theaters. It will expand in the weeks that follow.
"Famous" is being released internationally by Sony's Columbia Pictures, which co-financed the production and will share equally with DreamWorks in its success.
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire"), "Almost" starsBilly Crudup,Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
EXPANSIONS There was no significant activity on the expansion front this weekend.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $53.96 million, down about 22.46 percent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $69.59 million.
This normal three-day weekend's key film gross cannot be compared to this year's previous weekend, a four-day holiday weekend.
Last year, MGM's opening week of "Stigmata" was first with $18.31 million at 2,899 theaters ($6,316 per theater); and Buena Vista's sixth week of "The Sixth Sense" was second with $16.51 million at 2,782 theaters ($5,935 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $34.8 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $16.2 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES Based on business by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more), last weekend's top six distributors were:
USA Films was third with one film ("Nurse Betty"), grossing an estimated $7.27 million or 13.5 percent of the market.
Paramount was fifth with two films ("The Original Kings of Comedy" and "Bless the Child"), grossing an estimated $3.29 million or 6.1 percent of the market.
DreamWorks was sixth with one film("What Lies Beneath"), grossing an estimated $2.9 million or 5.4 percent of the market.
ADDITIONAL ESTIMATES (11)The Replacements/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 2,058 (-427) Gross: $1.72 million (-51 percent) Average per theater: $833 Cume: $39.2 million
(12)Nutty Professor II: The Klumps/Universal: Theaters: 1,694 (-439) Gross: $1.53 million (-50 percent) Average per theater: $900 Cume: $116.9 million
(13)Coyote Ugly/BV/Touchstone: Theaters: 1,412 (-410) Gross: $1.3 million (-46 percent) Average per theater: $921 Cume: $55.3 million
(14)Autumn in New York/MGM: Theaters: 1,801 (-415) Gross: $1.2 million (-45 percent) (tie) Average per theater: $666 Cume: $33.9 million
(14)The Crew/Buena Vista: Theaters: 1,487 (-28) Gross: $1.2 million (-67 percent) (tie) Average per theater: $595 Cume: $10.9 million
(16)Saving Grace/Fine Line: Theaters: 875 (0) Gross: $1.05 million (-55 percent) Average per theater: $1,205 Cume: $9.3 million
(17)Hollow Man/Columbia: Theaters: 1,184 (-765) Gross: $0.8 million (-61 percent) (tie) Average per theater: $676 Cume: $71.4 million
(17)Bless the Child/Paramount: Theaters: 1,165 (-777) Gross: $0.8 million (-59 percent) (tie) Average per theater: $675 Cume: $27.4 million
(19)Whipped/Destination: Theaters: 1,561 (0) Gross: $0.6 million (-72 percent) (tie) Average per theater: $385 Cume: $3.8 million
(19)The Perfect Storm/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 705 (-299) Gross: $0.6 million (-56 percent) (tie) Average per theater: $851 Cume: $178.6 million
(19)TURN IT UP/New Line: (see OTHER OPENINGS above) (tie)
(22)X-Men/Fox: Theaters: 682 (-166) Gross: $0.55 million (-48 percent) Average per theater: $810 Cume: $154.0 million
(23)BACKSTAGE/Dimension: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(24)Gladiator/DreamWorks: Theaters: 583 (+76) Gross: $0.44 million (-14 percent) Average per theater: $760 Cume: $184.2 million
(25)Chicken Run/DreamWorks: Theaters: 621 (-136) Gross: $0.31 (-52 percent) Cume: $104.6 million
(26)Disney's The Kid/Buena Vista/Disney: Theaters: 585 (-196) Gross: $0.29 million (-58 percent) Average per theater: $495 Cume: $67.4 million
(27)Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle/Universal: Theaters: 289 (-17) Gross: $0.10 million (-36 percent) Average per theater: $350 Cume: $25.8 million
(28)THIS IS SPINAL TAP/MGM: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(29)ANATOMY/Columbia: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)