SUNDAY AM: When Disney does cute the right way, it’s a can’t miss with North American moviegoers — even when the stars are yappy rat dogs on a crowded weekend when 7 motion pictures embracing almost every genre opened at the multiplexes. As expected, No. 1 Beverly Hills Chihuahua opened for a $29 million weekend gross for the best October debut in the studio’s history. The pic took in $7.8 million Friday, then up to $12.4M Saturday thanks to a huge kiddie matinee bounce, plus a projected $8.6M from 3,215 theaters. This was a true 4-quadrant hit, with over 70% of the audience made up of families, and 12% couples, without children.

DreamWorks/Paramount’s holdover Eagle Eye starring Shia LeBoeuf as Hollywood’s newest action star had a minimal 2nd weekend drop and came in No. 2 with $17 million (-39% from last Friday) from 3,516 venues after earning $5.4M Friday and $7.8M Saturday for a new cume of $54.6M.  Taking 3rd was Sony’s tween/teen new comedy Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist with $4.5 million Friday and $4.5M Saturday from 2,421 dates for a $12M weekend, which is less than anticipated but a great return on a $13 million negative cost. “Young females followed by young males better hurry to get there,” one rival studio bigwig told me. Indeed, the audience was 62% female and 55% under age 21.

No. 4 was Warner Bros’ mature romance Nights In Rodanthe at $7.3 million (-45% from last weekend) from 2,702 runs for a new cume of $25M. And New Line/Warner Bros Appaloosa had a surprise 5th place finish from just 1,045 plays for a $5 million FSS and new cume of $5.5M at the start of its 3rd week in limited release. The next pics were both holdovers: in 6th place, Sony’s Lakeview Terrace grossed $4.5 million over the weekend for a new cume of $32.1M. And No. 7 was Focus Pictures’ Burn After Reading with a $4 million FSS and a new $51.6M cume. Hollywood continues to register surprise at the box office for the faith-based firefighter saga Fireproof from Provident/Samuel Goldwyn: the low-budget pic held for #8 with a minimal 2nd week drop of 40% for a $4M weekend in only 852 theaters and new cume of $12.4M. After 10 days in release, Fireproof has surpassed the cume of Facing The Giants, the last faith-based film directed by Alex Kendrick.

As for other newcomers, David Zucker’s right-wing spoof An American Carol from Vivendi Entertainment opened decently for this genre of pic at No. 9 with $3.8 million from 1,639 locales. By contrast, Bill Maher’s left-wing satire Religulous directed by Borat‘s Larry Charles for Lionsgate opened on Wednesday and is doing far better proportionately at the box office, making $3.5 million this weekend despite playing in 1/3 as many venues as American Carol (just 502). Even more telling, Maher/Charles’ per screen average was a robust $6,972 compared to Zucker’s $2,325 — good enough for No. 10.

Julianne Moore couldn’t help the R-rated Miramax thriller Blindness which tanked at the box office, debuting #11 with just $2.3M from 1,690 dates. Spyglass Entertainment/Universal-distributed Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear as an inventor who takes on the American auto industry, was always going to be a hard sell despite the studio’s best efforts (remember Tucker?): it opened only 12th with just $2M from a limited release of 1,098 plays. Exit polls showed it appeared predominantly to an over-40 audience (78%) of females (57%) and Caucasians (89%). But faring far worse was the Autonomous Films/MGM-distributed How To Lose Friends And Alienate People which opened to only $1.4M from 1,750 runs. Well, Toby Young’s book was small, too. Finally, Sony Classics’ Oscar-touted Rachel Getting Married directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway platformed in 9 theaters (3 in NYC, 5 in LA, 1 in Toronto) for 302K this weekend and a staggering per screen average of $33,659!

Total weekend box office was way, way up from last year thanks to top dog and plenty of choice — $115M this year, soaring 37% over 2007’s $89M. Year-to-date revenues are running neck and neck at $7.2B. For more stats, see Media By Numbers.

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