‘Ouija’ spells out box office win

LOS ANGELES — Low-budget chiller “Ouija” scared up the most ticket sales this weekend, but the strength of Keanu Reeves’ “John Wick” was the biggest box office surprise.

“Ouija” benefited from audiences looking to get into the Halloween spirit by topping charts with $20 million from 2,858 locations. The brain child of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes and “Paranormal Activity” maestro Jason Blum, “Ouija” cost less than $5 million to produce, setting Universal Pictures, the studio behind the seance horror film, up for some enviable profit margins.

It marks the seventh of Blum’s micro-budgeted horror films to open in first place.

“He just does it over and over and over again,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s distribution chief.

“Ouija’s” PG-13 rating helped the film broaden its appeal to younger, female audiences. The picture’s opening weekend crowd was 75% under the age of 25 and 61% female.

“Marketing knew exactly what audience they were going after and they nailed it,” said Rocco.

Going into the weekend, “John Wick” looked like a dud. Reeves, still reeling from the epic flop that was “47 Ronin,” griped that studios no longer offered him plum roles and the action thriller looked like another nail in his career coffin. But reviews for the film about a hit man avenging the murder of his puppy were sterling, propelling the picture to $14.1 million across 2,589 locations. That was much more robust than the $7 million to $8 million opening most analysts projected the revenge thriller would make.

Lionsgate said Reeves’ ubiquity (he was also talked up for a role in the upcoming Doctor Strange film) helped bolster interest.

“Studios always like to see talent embrace a film and he went above and beyond, and it paid off,” said David Spitz, executive vice president of distribution at Lionsgate.

Reeves’ honesty about his professional travails helped generate a lot of social media chatter around “John Wick,” which may have bolstered its box office results.

“Moviegoers and people in general appreciate his candor,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak. “Major stars don’t say things like that. They’re too worried about their image. But his honesty resonated and audiences respect a star who is willing to talk that way.”

“John Wick” played well in Imax, with the wide screen format accounting for $2.5 million, or 18% of its haul.

In its second weekend in theaters, Brad Pitt’s World War II tank drama “Fury” fell 45% to $13 million, bringing its domestic total to $46 million. It’s a respectable hold, but the film was expensive. Shot for $68 million with undisclosed marketing and promotion costs, the picture will rely on foreign markets and awards buzz to march into the black.

In fourth place, “Gone Girl” continued to chug along. David Fincher’s adaptation added another $11.1 million to its $124 million domestic haul. By next week it will pass “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” as the director’s highest grossing stateside release.

Sliding in at No. 5, “The Book of Life” fell a slender 29% in its sophomore weekend to $9.8 million. The Fox and Reel FX co-production has made $29.9 million domestically.

“St. Vincent,” the comedy from the Weinstein Co. and Chernin Entertainment about a curmudgeon (Bill Murray) who befriends a neighborhood boy, expanded from 68 theaters to 2,282, picking up $8.1 million in the process. That showed the film will play beyond the art house crowd and the results were good enough for sixth place.

“The picture performed where we expected it would and we think it has long legs,” said Erik Lomis, the Weinstein Co.’s distribution chief. “The numbers in Middle America were very, very strong.”

In limited release, the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” opened to $125,172 in five theaters, for a strong $25,034 per screen average. Radius-TWC is overseeing the roll out and will expand the picture to at least 14 theaters next weekend.

“It’s an extraordinary, historic piece of cinema,” said Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn. “I’ve never been involved with anything like it and I’ve never seen a response to a movie the way people have responded to it.”

Fox Searchlight’s “Birdman” demonstrated its appeal as the quirky showbiz satire went from four theaters to 50, earning $1.4 million. It has made $2.1 million after two weeks in theaters and rapturous reviews.

Paramount Pictures’ “Men, Women & Children” fared less well. Jason Reitman’s social media dissection picked up $60,000 across 542 locations bringing its total to an anemic $664,000.

The best news for Hollywood is that October continued to drive a larger turnaround at the box office. Ticket sales were up nearly 10% from the same weekend last year when “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” topped charts with a $32 million debut.

Of course, next weekend is Halloween, which will land on a Friday, cutting into one of the biggest moviegoing days of the week and depressing ticket sales. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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