LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh alter-ego Borat made glorious returns at the box office, surprising Hollywood with a No. 1 debut. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," 20th Century Fox’s big-screen incarnation of Cohen’s Kazakh journalist from "Da Ali G Show," took in US$26.4 million during its opening weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday.
"This picture was playing to full houses," said Bruce Snyder, head of distribution at 20th Century Fox. "The planets aligned, the moons aligned, the stars aligned, and everything came together perfectly for us on this weekend."
Box-office analysts had expected Disney’s "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," with Tim Allen returning as St. Nicholas, to win the weekend. It was No. 2 with $20 million, followed by the Paramount-DreamWorks animated comedy "Flushed Away" in third place with $19.1 million.
With great Internet buzz and a built-in following from "Da Ali G Show," "Borat" succeeded where another cyber-sensation, "Snakes on a Plane," failed. "Snakes" opened last summer to modest crowds despite months of Internet hoopla.
The raucous, raunchy "Borat" follows the adventures of British comedian Cohen’s TV journalist from Kazakhstan in a blend of fiction and improvised comic encounters as he travels the United States, meets and mocks Americans and reports back to his home country.
"It is what you go to the theatre for," said Hutch Parker, the studio’s head of production. "You get that infectious, outrageous, interactive experience. There are people yelling at the screen, there are cheers."
"Borat" played in only 837 theatres, fewer than one-fourth the count for "The Santa Clause 3" and "Flushed Away." Averaging a whopping $31,511 a theatre, "Borat" easily outdistanced "The Santa Clause 3," which averaged $5,784 in 3,458 cinemas and "Flushed Away," which averaged $5,152 in 3,707 theatres.
Fox plans to expand "Borat" to as many as 2,500 theatres this Friday.
"The Santa Clause 3" pits Allen’s St. Nick against Jack Frost (Martin Short) as they battle for control of Christmas. "Flushed Away" features the voices of Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet in the story of a pampered pet mouse forced to make his way among sewer rats.
The two movies split the family audience, but their opening weekends were solid starts for the holiday season. Disney and Paramount expect their movies to hang tough through year’s end, even with the Warner Bros. animated penguin tale "Happy Feet" coming just before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.
"The Thanksgiving holiday is going to be just rocking," said Disney head of distribution Chuck Viane.
The previous weekend’s top movie, Lionsgate’s horror sequel "Saw III," held up solidly at No. 4 with $15.5 million, raising its 10-day total to $60.1 million.
However, the strong crop of new movies and holdovers did not quite stack up to the same weekend a year ago, when "Chicken Little" opened at No. 1 with $40 million and "Jarhead" debuted at No. 2 with $27.7 million. This weekend’s top 12 movies took in $116.2 million, down three per cent from the same period last year.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theatres, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," $26.4 million.
2. "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," $20 million.
3. "Flushed Away," $19.1 million.
4. "Saw III," $15.5 million.
5. "The Departed," $8 million.
6. "The Prestige," $7.8 million.
7. "Flags of Our Fathers," $4.5 million.
8. "Man of the Year," $3.8 million.
9. "Open Season," $3.1 million.
10. "The Queen," $3 million.