BOX OFFICE PLUMMETS 26 PERCENT

The box office experienced a horrific weekend in more ways than one. Not only did a horror movie that its studio declined to show to critics lead all others, but it earned just $9 million -- the first time in three years that the top film had made less than $10 million. Moreover, the total for all films was lower than any weekend of the year and down 26 percent from the comparable weekend a year ago to just $54.4 million, according to Bloomberg News. In an interview with today's (Monday) Los Angeles Times, Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian observed that while this is ordinarily a time of year when the box office slows down, "This is not a great way to start off the fall season." It was, however, fairly great for Sony Films, which saw The Covenant become its ninth film to open at No. 1 this year. It earned $9 million, well ahead of Hollywoodland, which garnered critical raves for its star, Ben Affleck. It placed second with $6 million.

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

1. The Covenant, $9 million; 2. Hollywoodland, $6 million; 3. Invincible, $5.8 million; 4. The Protector, $5 million; 5. Crank, $4.8 million; 6. The Illusionist, $4.6 million; 7. Little Miss Sunshine, $4.4 million; 8. The Wicker Man, $4.1 million; 9. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, $3 million; 10. Barnyard, $2.6 million.

PIRATES SLOWS OVERSEAS

Overseas, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest finally fell out of first place for the first time in 10 weeks and was replaced at the top of the heap by Disney/Pixar's Cars, which was recently dubbed into German and opened over the weekend in Germany and Austria.In Austria, Cars accounted for nearly half of all ticket sales. But overall the overseas box office was as slow as the domestic one. Cars took the lead with just $9 million, while Pirates wound up in second place with $7.7 million. (Pirate's worldwide gross also passed the $1-billion mark.

BOX OFFICE PUSHES ENTERTAINMENT SPENDING UPWARDS

An improved box office is expected to push total U.S. spending on entertainment -- primarily movies, music, and video games -- up 4.4 percent to $87.5 billion this year, according to the annual Communications Industry Forecast and Report by private equity and capital-fund managers Veronis Suhler Stevenson. The figure compares to a 2.3-percent decline in 2005. The report credited three movies for being primarily responsible for the uptick -- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Da Vinci Code and Superman Returns.

STILL LIFE A SURPRISE WINNER AT VENICE

Following a vote that startled many reporters covering the Venice Film Festival, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) seemed to come out of nowhere to wind up as the winner of the festival's prestigious Golden Lion award. The reporters' favorite, The Queen, did receive a best-actress award for its star, Helen Mirren. Giving his career a new lease on life, the Venice panel awarded Ben Affleck its best actor award for his performance in Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland, in which he portrays George Reeves, who starred in the original Adventures of Superman TV series in the 1950s. The festival's Silver Lion for directing was awarded to veteran French director Alain Resnais for Private Fears in Public Places, while Spike Lee took the Horizons documentary prize for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

Brian B.