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‘Saw IV’ thrashes its way to the top

Times Staff Writer

Trick or treat? Welcome to the era of the perpetual film franchise -- for better or worse.

The horror sequel “Saw IV” carved up the weekend competition at the box office, to the delight of bloodthirsty horror fans and the dismay of cringing social commentators.

The R-rated sequel took the No. 1 slot with an estimated $32.1 million in U.S. and Canadian receipts, distributor Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. said Sunday.

Despite a growing outcry from critics over sadistic and grisly “torture-porn” movies such as the “Saw” and “Hostel” series, this was the third straight No. 1 opener for the franchise that has quickly become a Halloween-season tradition. And it was the third in a row to open at more than $30 million.

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“That’s brand loyalty for you,” said Steve Rothenberg, president of theatrical distribution for Lions Gate.

“There definitely will be a ‘Saw V’ next Halloween.”

The modestly budgeted “Saw IV” scored the highest opening weekend of the fall season, and the third No. 1 for Lions Gate, which released the western “3:10 to Yuma” in early September and the comedy-drama “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?” earlier this month.

The Steve Carell-Juliette Binoche romantic comedy “Dan in Real Life” was No. 2 for the weekend, grossing about $12.1 million for Walt Disney Co. Last weekend’s top film, Sony Pictures’ vampire thriller “30 Days of Night,” fell a sizable 58% to place No. 3 with $6.7 million.

Overall, industry results were down for the sixth straight weekend from the same period in 2006, according to research firm Media by Numbers. A stream of downbeat and politically themed dramas has sparked little audience interest.

Lions Gate surveys showed that 89% of “Saw IV” patrons had seen all three previous films in the series, either at theaters or on home video. The film played to a young crowd: 68% of the audience was under age 25.

Like most horror movies, the series has been front-loaded, generating much of its business in the first weekend. If “Saw IV” has wobbly legs like the franchise’s previous films, it won’t be a blockbuster but will end up grossing a solid $80 million to $90 million domestically.

When R-rated horror films including “Hostel Part II” and “Captivity” flopped this summer, analysts questioned whether the genre had run its course or become oversaturated. But the films have fared better of late, including Weinstein Co. and filmmaker Rob Zombie’s new version of “Halloween.”

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“Dan in Real Life,” starring Carell as a widower who falls for his brother’s girlfriend, opened at the higher end of expectations after garnering generally warm reviews.

In limited release, the botched-heist thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” averaged a promising $37,000 at two theaters. Directed by prolific veteran Sidney Lumet and co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney, the critically acclaimed picture will be more seriously tested in the next few weeks as ThinkFilm rolls it out.

“Bella,” an audience award winner from the 2006 Toronto film festival, also got off to a solid start. At 165 theaters, the movie grossed $1.3 million, averaging about $8,000 per venue.

An English-language movie starring Mexican telenovela heartthrob Eduardo Verastegui, “Bella” has captivated the “faith audience” through its inspirational story about love and redemption, said Howard Cohen, co-president of distributor Roadside Attractions. Grass-roots marketing has targeted Latino and churchgoing consumers, but Cohen believes the picture has breakout potential.

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“There are a lot of dark, depressing movies out there,” he said. “This is more of a harbinger of what audiences in America -- and not just Middle America -- want to see.”

Indeed, while dramas such as “Rendition” and “Things We Lost in the Fire” have tanked, audiences have been searching out upbeat alternatives.

Disney’s family comedy “The Game Plan” has shown plenty of stamina this fall and could end up approaching $100 million domestically. Sony’s musical “Across the Universe,” a love story featuring Beatles’ tunes, has built a cult following while quietly grossing $19.3 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Hollywood’s fall box-office slump could finally be reversed this coming weekend, as two major films are poised to open at $40 million or more, analysts say.

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Targeting different audiences are Universal Pictures’ gritty crime thriller “American Gangster,” starring Denzel Washington, and DreamWorks Animation SKG’s comedy “Bee Movie,” created and co-written by Jerry Seinfeld.

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josh.friedman@latimes.com


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