'Mountain' high

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Mainstream audiences have their "King Kongs" and "Narnias" this season, but the must-see event for the art house crowd is "Brokeback Mountain." Whether the picture will appeal as it rolls across the country and racks up awards, though, remains to be seen.

"Brokeback Mountain" had a staggering start at five locations in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, rustling up $547,425 for a per-theater average of $109,485 — the highest on record for a live-action movie.

Distributor Focus Features intends to nurture the picture via a slow expansion. On Dec. 16, "Brokeback" will mosey into about 60 more theaters, adding 20 new markets, including Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Washington.

After that, the film's next significant expansions are targeted for Jan. 6, with more than 300 theaters already lined up before Academy Award nominations are announced. Focus may go even wider if demand merits.

Going into the weekend, "Brokeback" seemed an inevitability to nab a best picture nomination, given the hype and overwhelmingly positive reviews behind the film. The fact that it's charging out of the gate in theaters only cements its status as a front-runner.

The perception of "Brokeback"'s quality, however, may be an ephemeral thing. Sure, it's the hot ticket now, but bandwagon jumping often occurs within the industry and amongst those who cover it.

The public at large doesn't necessarily have to like a picture in order to make it a hit. Last year's best picture winner, "Million Dollar Baby," inched past the $100 million mark even though word-of-mouth was mixed at best. Like many pictures artificially boosted in the heat of awards season, it's not well remembered.

On the surface, "Million Dollar Baby," was an underdog boxing tale starring Clint Eastwood, something audiences could get behind. The sucker punch of a plot shift was not touched upon in its marketing.

"Brokeback Mountain," with its story of love between two cowboys, is not as immediately attractive. Popular gay-themed movies of the past have mostly been comedies ("In & Out") or thrillers ("The Talented Mr. Ripley"). "Philadelphia" was an exception, with its star power and topical subject matter. "Brokeback" will attempt to win moviegoers with a universal tale of love and repression.

It may be premature to write off "Memoirs of a Geisha." Despite a mixed reaction from industry observers, director Rob Marshall's adaptation of the best-seller culled a strong $682,504 from eight venues in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Toronto.

The $85,313 per-theater average for "Geisha" was the second highest of the year, behind "Brokeback Mountain." Distributor Sony Pictures Entertainment plans a more accelerated rollout than Focus is using for "Brokeback," expanding "Geisha" to 50 theaters on Dec. 16 and to more than 1,000 on Dec. 23.

Still, "Memoirs of a Geisha" will have a difficult time shaking the stigma that it's a pedestrian drama produced to garner Oscar trophies. It could go down like an "Evita" or a "Cold Mountain" — pictures that found an audience and attention in smaller categories but couldn't muster best picture nominations.

Lost in the weekend's shuffle was "Mrs. Henderson Presents." The period comedy starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins aroused $55,344 from six venues, averaging a soft $9,224 per site. The Weinstein Co. release will need to gain traction as the market gets more crowded if it hopes to become a major contender.

"Syriana" entered wide release after two potent limited weeks. Director-writer Stephen Gaghan's political thriller grabbed $11.7 million from 1,752 theaters, ranking a distant second to "The Chronicles of Narnia." While the weekend gross was solid, it was significantly behind the wide break produced by "Traffic," Gaghan's previous picture in a similar vein.

"Good Night, and Good Luck" could remain the George Clooney movie of choice in the best picture race. A black-and-white period drama about journalism that grossed $22 million from a modest release is far more impressive than a thriller like "Syriana" that might double that gross.

The best picture race could get a shake up from "King Kong." Peter Jackson's mega-budget remake looms large now that many in the industry have seen it. The picture is over the top and all over the map, but it is well liked and does go through the motions of an epic.

If "King Kong" becomes the eighth wonder of the box office that it's been hyped up to be, it may snare the bone that the academy occasionally throws to populist fare.

Top Opening Weekend Per Theater Averages of Live Action Movies
1982-Present
Rank Title Distributor Average Theaters Gross-to-Date Release Date Globes
(wins/noms) Oscar
(wins/noms) 1 Brokeback Mountain Focus $109,485 5 $547,425 Dec. 9, 2005     2 Evita Buena Vista $97,542 2 $50,047,179 Dec. 25, 1996 3 / 5 1 / 5 3 Memoirs of a Geisha Sony $85,313 8 $682,504 Dec. 9, 2005     4 Moulin Rouge! Fox $83,770 2 $57,386,607 May 18, 2001 3 / 6 2 / 8 5 Edward Scissorhands Fox $79,811 2 $56,362,352 Dec. 7, 1990 0 / 1 0 / 1 6 Syriana Warner Bros. $74,900 5 $13,236,572 Nov. 23, 2005     7 Melinda and Melinda Fox Searchlight $74,238 1 $3,826,280 Mar. 18, 2005     8 Punch-Drunk Love Sony $73,440 5 $17,844,216 Oct. 11, 2002 0 / 1 0 / 0 9 I Heart Huckabees Fox Searchlight $73,044 4 $12,785,432 Oct. 1, 2004 0 / 0 0 / 0 10 Guiana 1838 RBC $70,910 1 $227,241 Sept. 24, 2004 0 / 0 0 / 0 11 Bulworth Fox $70,908 2 $26,528,185 May 15, 1998 0 / 3 0 / 1 12 The Crucible Fox $62,995 1 $7,343,114 Nov. 29, 1996 0 / 2 0 / 2 13 The Aristocrats ThinkFilm $60,949 4 $6,341,877 July 29, 2005     14 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Buena Vista $56,542 2 $24,020,403 Dec. 10, 2004 0 / 0 0 / 0 15 The Thin Red Line Fox $56,506 5 $36,400,491 Dec. 25, 1998 0 / 0 0 / 7 16 The Blair Witch Project Artisan $56,002 27 $140,539,099 July 16,1999 0 / 0 0 / 0 17 Kiss of the Spider Woman Island Alive $55,962 1 $17,005,229 July 26, 1985 0 / 4 1 / 4 18 The Royal Tenenbaums Buena Vista $55,396 5 $52,364,010 Dec. 14, 2001 1 / 1 0 / 1 19 Adaptation Sony $54,925 7 $22,498,520 Dec. 6, 2002 2 / 6 1 / 4 20 American Beauty DreamWorks $53,845 16 $130,096,601 Sept. 17, 1999 3 / 6 5 / 8 Source: Box Office Mojo

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