UPDATED Sunday AM: Wow, were all those box office guru predictions for this weekend wrong! I’m told Fox’s Borat, though playing in just 837 theaters, shocked the experts and became the No. 1 movie in the U.S. HBO cable funnyman Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof took in a staggering $9.1 million Friday and $10 mil Saturday for what was at least an opening weekend of $26.1 million and, if Sunday holds, closer to $27 mil. (Those estimates of $30 mil by some media were overly optimistic. As usual, weekend numbers include Sunday estimates.) 1borat.jpgPlaying in four times as many theaters for the weekend, #2 Disney’s Santa Clause 3 opened at $20 mil, and Paramount / Dreamworks’ Flushed Away finished 3rd with $19.1 mil although rival studios put the figure at $18.7 mil. Based on the anecdotal evidence that came in to me about long lines at the box office, sold-out screenings, people sneaking out of work early just to see the movie, and fans driving more than an hour to find a theater showing the pic, I believe Borat was standing room only. I think the moviegoers weren’t just rolling in the aisles, they were sitting in the aisles, for the film to make this much money. Indeed, the per screen average for Friday was a whopping $10,535 and $11,950 Saturday. (Only Pedro Almodovar’s Volver, the Sony Classics pic starring Penelope Cruz, had a better per screen average this opening weekend with $11,282 from 5 theaters Friday and $15,167 Saturday.) By contrast, the movie all the experts thought was going to finish first came in 2nd: the Santa sequel, starring Tim Allen and opening in 3,458 theaters, earned $5.2 million Friday, and $8.8 mil Saturday, with an anemic per screen average of only $1,490/$2,555. Paramount / Dreamworks’ Flushed Away opened in 4th place Friday but moved up to 3rd place. Playing in 3,707 theaters, it earned $4.6 mil Friday but the Saturday kiddie bounce gave it another $8.4 mil — better than expected. flushedaway1.jpgParamount says it’s the biggest opening ever for an Aardman movie. (So no “down the drain” jokes necessary there.) Since date night these days means a horror flick for teens and young adults, Lionsgate holdover Saw III playing wide in 3,167 theaters took in $5.1 mil Friday (down 64%) to be the No. 3 pic. But it settled down to No. 4 by Saturday with $6.3 mil for what was a $15.2 mil weekend added for a new cume of $59.7 mil. Marty Scorsese’s Oscar frontrunner The Departed, starring Leo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg, still had legs at the box office its 5th week out even though its theater count declined to 2,785. Taking in $2.3 mil Friday, Warner Bros.’ dramatic thriller was No. 6 but it climbed up to No. 5 with 3.5 mil Saturday for what was another $7.9 mil added to its healthy cume of $102.1 mil. Disney’s 3-week holdover, The Prestige, expanded its theater count to pop up as #5 Friday; now showing in 2,305 theaters, the magician pic raked in $2.4 mil Friday and $3.3 mil Saturday to finish the weekend in 6th place with $7.8 mil and new cume of $39.4 mil. For #7, it’s Paramount/Dreamworks’ box office disappointment but critical success Flags Of Our Fathers from director Clint Eastwood: despite expanding its theater count to 2,375, Flags earned only $1.3 mil Friday and $2 mil Saturday for what was a $4.4 mil weekend and a new cume of just $26.5 for this 3-week holdover. volver3.jpgIn 8th position, Universal’s comic holdover Man Of The Year starring Robin Williams made $1.2 Friday and $1.7 mil Saturday for a $3.8 mil weekend and a new cume of $34 mil after 4 weeks out. Miramax’ Oscar buzz-worthy The Queen — starring Helen Mirren in a touted Best Actress performance — creeped into #9 on the Top 10 after making an estimated $800,000 Friday (up 70% thanks to its theater count expanding into 387 venues) and $1.2 mil Saturday for what was a $2.9 mil weekend and a new cume of $10 mil for the 6-week holdover. And, finally, Fox’s family friendly Flicka took in $750,000 Friday for #10, but then dropped out of the running, replaced by Sony’s gutty little animated pic Open Season which even after 6 weeks out, made $2.9 mil this weekend added to its new cume of $81.2 mil. Flicka ended the weekend with $2.6 mil and a new cume of $17.5 mil after 3 weeks out. Other openings this weekend included Volver, which earned $56,000 from its 5 theaters Friday, and AdLabs’ Umrao Jaan screening in 65 theaters. Meanwhile, Paramount’s Babel, the Brad Pitt starrer getting good Oscar buzz, expanded into 35 theaters and earned $241,000 Friday. and $374,000 Saturday, ending the weekend with $880,000 and a new cume of $1.4 mil. Next weekend, Fox expands Borat into 2,200 theaters, so Sacha will be No. 1 again, easily fending off Will Ferrell (Stranger Than Fiction) and Russell Crowe (A Good Year).

a1borat.jpgUPDATED Saturday PM: Fox showed savvy to cherry-pick its theaters in big cities and college towns: “They knew people would have a great group experience watching a very funny movie, and the word of mouth would spread like wildfire,” a source explains to me. “What they didn’t want is for people to walk into half-full theaters and have theater owners feel like it was a disappointing weekend before the word of mouth could catch up.” Today, I received this report from San Marcos, Texas (Texas State University): “Went to Borat, and the place was in near riot. Packed for a 3 PM showing. I’ve never experienced that kind of atmosphere in a theater before. The place was outta control. Never stopped laughing.” Fox execs anticipate that, with its misogynistic and anti-Semitic hero, Borat will have legs, especially on college campuses that love Cohen’s HBO cult figure, Ali G. Take Friday night: at a cineplex playing Borat in Carbondale, Illinois, home to Southern Illinois University, I received this report: “Almost impossible to hear the dialogue since everyone was laughing so hard. In the parking lot, a few minutes ago, kids were doing Borat jokes after the film.” In NYC, at a 4:40 PM Saturday showing, “there were two lines down 2nd Avenue at one of the theaters showing Borat — each with more than 100 people — one for the box office, one for ticket-holders. I doubt either was for Marie Antoinette. I’m confidently betting that it was a brilliant move, and not shortsightedness, to keep the country at large waiting another week to see the movie.” By Saturday afternoon, the talk of Hollywood was whether Fox could have earned double or triple its weekend take if the studio had not been scared off by Borat‘s early weak tracking in Middle America. (See below.)

UPDATED Friday PM: OK, my gurus are telling me that today’s Borat matinees are HUGE and so are tonight’s showings. The per screen averages in those 837 theaters will be killer this weekend. But they say Disney’s Santa Clause 3 is still gonna win the weekend with its 3,458 theaters and Saturday kid bounce. Still, Fox’s last-minute Borat strategy — to suddenly cut back its opening to just 800 big-city screens in the U.S. and Canada when it became clear Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof wasn’t tracking in Middle America — looks smart. I’m told Borat should outperform Paramount / Dreamworks’ animated Flushed Away despite the kiddie fare’s 3,707 theaters. In terms of numbers, look for Santa Clause 3 in the high 20s as in millions, Borat $15 mil, and Flushed Away also in the teens. I was the first to warn that the tracking showed Middle America wasn’t getting the Borat joke. Back on October 17, I learned that awareness of Cohen’s pic, widely thought to have runaway box-office potential, was well behind that Tim Allen clunker The Santa Clause 3. Then the Borat PR blitz started to wear thin (I began referring to it as Bore-At). For awhile, Borat looked comparable to Snakes on a Plane: examples of how Internet hype do not necessarily translate into box-office hype. So, even though Fox felt they had a movie that plays better than any comedy they’d released in a while, the studio blinked and announced Borat‘s “tiered theatrical release.” (A better word for it would have been retreat.) Most of the Borat theaters are in big cities, with the studio hoping that word of mouth will motivate “the local yokels” to see it next week when it expands. bfborat15.jpgWith only an $18 mil budget, this pic is certain to make moola. But how much more publicity can this movie generate? The pic started making waves at the Cannes Film Festival and wowed audiences at September’s Toronto Film Festival. Cohen, in character as fictional TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev, the “sixth most famous man in Kazakhstan,” staged various Washington, D.C., stunts outside the White House gates and Kazakhstani Embassy during a state visit by Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was not amused. The media ate it up, and since then Cohen has been red hot in Hollywood. Sacha already has his next deal in place: the British comedian is getting $42.5 mil from Universal for his next pic in which he’ll play gay Austrian fashion reporter Bruno in the same documentary-style as Borat.

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