i>BORAT MAKE BENEFIT FOR BOX OFFICE

Theater owners and 20th Century Fox discovered over the weekend that Santa Claus doesn't come from the North Pole but from Kazakhstan, that he doesn't wear a beard but a mustache, and that his name is not really Tim Allen but Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen's Borat rang up an estimated $26.1 million at the box office despite playing in just 837 theaters -- that's $31,500 in each theater. By contrast Allen's The Santa Clause 3, which finished in second place, took in $20 million on 3,458 screens -- or $5,780 per screen. Most analysts -- and tracking surveys -- had predicted that the Disney film would be the big winner at the box office. Some industry observers questioned the wisdom of Fox's decision to cut back on the number of theaters showing Borat following poor tracking surveys. In an interview with today's (Monday) Los Angeles Times, Borat producer Jay Roach commented, "It's amazing that tracking is so important to the industry when it's frequently way off." The movie faces weak competition next week when it is scheduled to expand. Meanwhile, the animated Flushed Away performed better than expected, placing third with about $19.1 million and giving Aardman Animation its biggest opening ever.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:

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.

VOLVER A SMASH IN LIMITED RELEASE

Pedro Almodóvar's Volver also created a sensation over the weekend, generating $202,000 in just five theaters. The film received six nominations Saturday for the European Film Awards, tying with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others for the most nods. (Winners will be announced during ceremonies in Warsaw, Poland on Dec. 2.) Volver received rhapsodic reviews from critics on Friday. "What a joy to be alive and well and going to the movies during the prime of Pedro Almodóvar," enthused Jan Stuart in Newsday. "One of the year's most delectably twisted treats" is the way Jack Mathews described it in the New York Daily News. Claudia Puig in USA Today hailed it as "suspenseful, clever, gently funny and always emotionally resonant." Much of the praise fell at the feet of Penélope Cruz. Carina Chocano wrote that she instills in her character "an awesome resoluteness and strength of character." And Lou Lumenick in the New York Post commented, "Volver is the best thing to happen to Penelope Cruz since she broke up with Tom Cruise."

KIDDER PRAISES DONNER'S SUPERMAN II CUT

Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in Superman II, has given a thumbs up to the Richard Donner cut of the film, which is being released on DVD on Nov. 28. Following a screening of the film on Thursday night, Kidder told Home Media Retailing Magazine, "I think this is such a better version of Superman II. ... It's night and day." Kidder told a panel discussion at the Directors Guild that after Donner was fired by the film's producers and replaced by Richard Lester, most of the script was rewritten and reshot. She said that she and co-star Christopher Reeve "were really pissed off [over the changes]. He was a little more political about it." On the other hand, she said, she gave a magazine interview in which she remarked that "the producers were beneath contempt." As a result of her comments, she said, "I ended up having 12 lines in Superman III."

VIVENDI IN PLAY?

French conglomerate Vivendi, which nearly collapsed under the weight of debt after it acquired Seagram's entertainment assets for $30 billion in 2000, is now considering selling itself, published reports indicated over the weekend. Reuters reported that Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. had approached Vivendi with an offer to buy the company for $51 billion but that the talks got nowhere. The New York Times reported on Saturday that the talks appeared to have stalled -- even though the offer was reportedly the biggest of its kind in history. Today's (Monday) issue of the Times, citing people involved in the talks, reported that it was Vivendi that invited KKR to make an offer, "opening the possibility that the company could welcome discussions with other suitors." Vivendi, which sold 80 percent of its stake in Universal Pictures to GE two years ago, retained ownership of Universal Music, the world's leading record company, and the French film and satellite TV company Canal Plus. It also owns the French mobile phone company SFR.

Brian B.