For ‘Borat,’ a glorious open

Times Staff Writer

Americans turned out in force to see “Borat,” the long-awaited mock documentary starring Sacha Baron Cohen as a boorish Kazakh journalist who offends everyone in sight while touring the U.S. seeking cultural enlightenment and Pamela Anderson.

As the wacky Borat himself might say: Why not? They like!

The movie topped the weekend box office with record-setting ticket sales of $26.4 million in the U.S. and Canada at only 837 theaters, according to estimates Sunday from 20th Century Fox.

“Borat” broke the box-office record for a movie opening at fewer than 1,000 locations. It bested Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which opened at $23.9 million in 2004.


“It was like a rock concert atmosphere -- pandemonium,” said “Borat” producer Jay Roach, who attended three sold-out shows in Hollywood and West L.A. on Friday night.

“During the naked wrestling scene, people were thrashing around and laughing so hard they couldn’t breathe,” he said.

Walt Disney Co.'s “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,” which most prerelease consumer surveys had indicated would finish first, came in at No. 2 with an estimated gross of $20 million.

The huge haul for “Borat” was especially surprising given Fox’s recent decision to sharply scale back the release in response to surveys showing limited awareness of the film.

The R-rated movie, whose full title is “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” averaged $31,511 per theater.

So-called tracking surveys had pointed to an opening in the $15-million range. But they failed to capture the intensity of the “Borat” phenomenon stoked by enthusiastic screening audiences and a carefully scripted publicity campaign that started in the spring, Roach said.

“It’s amazing that tracking is so important to the industry when it’s frequently way off,” Roach said.

“The ‘Borat’ virus has been out there spreading, but not among the people who answer the surveys,” he added.


Since May, Cohen has been appearing only in character as Borat Sagdiyev, and entertainment journalists have obligingly played along with the gag.

During the Cannes Film Festival, they photographed him at the beach in what would become his trademark green thong bikini alongside two models. This fall they followed him from the Kazakh Embassy in Washington to the White House gates, where he tried to invite “Premier George Walter Bush” to a screening.

Though analysts have questioned the relevance of movie critics in today’s marketplace, rave reviews clearly gave “Borat” a big boost. The movie has an unusually high 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, a website that summarizes critics’ opinions.

“Having the acknowledgment of critics helped audiences see the value of taking a chance on something that’s so different from what they are used to being fed,” said Hutch Parker, Fox’s production president.


The scaled-back release also ended up benefiting the film, he said. “It’s an incredibly infectious experience that plays best in a crowded auditorium. And this way, we’re now expanding to meet a very hungry demand,” Parker said, noting the studio’s plan to widen the release to as many as 2,500 theaters for the upcoming weekend.

“Borat,” which cost a relatively modest $17 million to produce, also opened overseas to strong results. In 17 markets it grossed an estimated $17.8 million, placing first in at least six countries, including Cohen’s native Britain.

The movie’s success, on the heels of the summer’s hit “Jackass: Number Two,” could spark a trend as Hollywood studios elevate crude comedy that relies heavily on unscripted footage.

“The combination of ‘Jackass’ and ‘Borat’ is telling the industry in very strong terms that films like this are a cost-effective way to bring people to the box office,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. in Encino.


“We’re going to see other attempts at trying to replicate this type of reality-based humor -- what you might call ‘Candid Camera’ on steroids,” he said.

Among the weekend’s wide releases, “The Santa Clause 3" won the battle of big-budget family films. At 3,458 theaters it averaged $5,784 per location.

The movie, starring Tim Allen, opened far below “The Santa Clause 2,” the previous installment in the franchise. That film opened at $29 million in the U.S. and Canada in 2002.

But “The Santa Clause 2" didn’t face another major new family film such as “Flushed Away,” the latest collaboration between DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Animations.


Chuck Viane, Disney’s president of distribution, said he wasn’t disappointed to see his movie at No. 2. “We were the No. 1 family film, even if we got there by just a stride,” he said.

Executives at Paramount Pictures, which distributes DreamWorks Animation’s movies, said they were pleased with the $19.1-million opening for “Flushed Away,” which placed third for the weekend. At 3,707 theaters, the rats-in-a-sewer adventure averaged $5,152 per location.

Aardman’s Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” opened at $16 million in 2005, and its “Chicken Run” opened at $17.5 million in 2000.

Last weekend’s leader, “Saw III,” dropped 54% in its second weekend, placing fourth with a gross of $15.5 million for Lions Gate. The low-budget horror movie generated $60.1 million in sales in 10 days.


Warner Bros.’ crime thriller “The Departed” topped $100 million in its fifth weekend, a tally sure to boost the movie’s year-end awards prospects.

Among limited releases, Miramax’s “The Queen” showed strength in expanding to 387 theaters, grossing $3 million to crack the top 10. The political drama, starring Helen Mirren, has totaled $10.1 million after six weekends in a slow roll-out aimed at generating word of mouth and awards buzz.

Overall, industry ticket sales were down slightly from a year ago, when Disney’s “Chicken Little” opened to $40 million. Year to date, revenue is up 6.6%, thanks to a combination of higher attendance and ticket prices.

Next weekend will bring several new releases, but with its theater count nearly tripling, “Borat” could stay No. 1.




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Box office

Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Borat $26.4 $26.4

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause 20.0 20.0


Flushed Away 19.1 19.1

Saw III 15.5 60.1

The Departed 8.0 102.3

The Prestige 7.8 39.4


Flags of Our Fathers 4.5 26.6

Man of the Year 3.8 34.0

Open Season 3.1 81.4

The Queen 3.0 10.1



Industry totals

*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2005 $130.0 -3.3%

Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2005 $7.82 6.6%



*--* Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. Los Angeles Times