Coen Brothers win the top spot
By John Hamann
September 14, 2008
Box office is about a lot of things, and this weekend it's about peaks and valleys. Last weekend, the box office bottomed out, limping badly to its yearly low point with a top 12 take of $50.3 million - or about 30% of The Dark Knight's opening weekend. ($158.4 million in three days - I'm still not over it). This weekend, the box office snapped awake, mostly due to the large amount of new product hitting movie theatres, as there have only been five new films released in the last three weekends. With a De Niro/Pacino combo, a Coen Brothers flick, a gospel according to Tyler Perry, and an elder chick flick, there was something for everyone, which led to a peak at the box office, It also meant a valley for box office tracking, Nic Cage and Vin Diesel.
Our number one film of this mid-September weekend is not the De Niro/Pacino match-up Righteous Kill or the Tyler Perry film. It's Clooney, Pitt and the Coen Family with Burn After Reading, in their first number one debut ever. The Coens' follow-up to the completely serious No Country For Old Men was the total opposite, and Burn After Reading charmed ticket buyers into $19.4 million worth of sales. Released to only 2,651 venues (a number often used when distributors aren't quite sure of the product) Burn had a fantastic average of $7,319. For the Coen Brothers, this is a huge financial success, as these two usually make art house films that don't see screen counts in the thousands. In fact, No Country for Old Men never saw this many screens, even in its post-Oscar glory. No Country's biggest weekend was $7.8 million from 860 venues, and their biggest weekend ever came from the Tom Hanks-driven Ladykillers which found $12.6 million from 1,583 venues in March 2004 (which is an absolute shame considering titles like Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona and Fargo flow from their brains, just to name a few).
Why the spike in sales for this Coen Brothers release? Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Clooney had worked with the Coens on Intolerable Cruelty ($12.5 million opening) and O Brother Where Art Thou?, which was formerly the Coens' biggest earner with a $45.5 million domestic finish, until No Country came around ($74.3 million domestic). George Clooney is happy to clear his memory of Leatherheads, the large disappointment ($31.2 million finish) released in April of this year. Pitt was new to the Coens, and this is his first real shot at pure comedy. His closest prior to this would be maybe the Ocean's films or Cool World, so we don't really have anything to compare this to. For Coen favorite Frances McDormand, this is a new high in terms of opening weekend.
Critically, Burn After Reading was not embraced as much as No Country For Old Men was (94%), but with this kind of story and style, who thought it would be? Burn had 127 critics chime in on its performance, and of those, 97 found something to like. That gives Burn After Reading a fresh rating of 78%, which is neither exciting or disappointing when it comes to the Coen Brothers. The more serious critics didn't like it as much as the general populace, as that score came in at a quite different 54%. The best news for distributor Focus Features is the slight $37 million budget, as this one could finish in the mid-$60 millions.