BOX OFFICE STUMBLES; WORST SINCE 2003

Last weekend's box office tumbled to its lowest gross since 2003 as the top-12 films grossed just $50.3 million, down 32 percent from the comparable weekend a year ago and down 23 percent from last weekend. The Nicolas Cage film Bangkok Dangerous from Lionsgate finished as the leader, but its $7.8 million gross was the lowest for any No. 1 film this year. Its per-screen average of $2,937 was slightly less than that of No. 11 on the list, Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which averaged $2,947 per screen in its fourth week. Still, the Lionsgate film pushed Paramount's Tropic Thunder to second place, as it slid 37 percent to $7.2 million, to bring its four-week gross to $96.5 million -- ordinarily a substantial amount for a comedy, but not necessarily in the case of Thunder, whose special effects and stellar cast reportedly drove production costs to $90 million. Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight moved up to third place in its eight week, with $5.515 million, edging out Sony's The House Bunny with $5.513 million. Rounding out the top ten was Overture Films's Traitor with $4.2 million.

The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Media by Numbers (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):

1. Bangkok Dangerous, Lionsgate, $7,783,266, (New); 2. Tropic Thunder, Paramount, $7,230,710, 4 Wks. ($96,541,629); 3. The Dark Knight, Warner Bros., $5,515,119, 8 Wks. ($511,997,658); 4. The House Bunny, Sony, $5,512,870, 3 Wks. ($36,611,667); 5. Traitor, Overture Films, $4,274,297, 2 Wks. ($17,265,872); 6. Babylon A.D. Fox, $4,180,570, 2 Wks. ($17,378,536); 7. Death Race, Universal, $3,710,915, 3 Wks. ($29,909,125); 8. Disaster Movie, Lionsgate, $3,031,307, 2 Wks. ($10,602,140); 9. Mamma Mia!, Universal, $2,855,945, 8 Wks. ($136,440,050); 10. Pineapple Express, Sony, $2,255,875, 5 Wks. ($84,013,748).

POTTER "LEXICON" VIOLATED COPYRIGHT, JUDGE RULES

Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling have praised a ruling by a federal judge in New York that effectively halted the publication of a reference guide to the Harry Potter novels by RDR Books. The guide is based on Steven Vander Ark's website, The Harry Potter Lexicon. Judge Robert P. Patterson ruled that the guide violates the Potter copyrights. "I went to court to uphold the right of authors everywhere to protect their own original work. The court has upheld that right," Rowling said in a statement. In his 68-page opinion, the judge took note of the fact that Vander Ark had previously received "positive feedback" about the website from Rowling herself, who confessed that she had periodically checked it out while writing her books for particular facts that she had forgotten. She had referred to it as "my natural home," he observed. The judge also noted that Warner Bros. had invited Vander Ark to the set of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where producer David Heyman told him that the film's writers had used his website "almost every day." However, Patterson observed, the book uses "a troubling amount" of quotations from the book, sometimes with quotation marks, "but more often the original language is copied without quotation marks, often making it difficult to know which words are Rowling's and which are Vander Ark's."

FORMER DISNEY VICE CHAIRMAN HIRED BY JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

The Justice Department has hired former Disney vice-chairman and chief counsel Sandy Litvack to head an investigation into possible antitrust violations by Google in its growing control of advertising on online searches. The government is likely to oppose a deal between Google and Yahoo! who together reportedly account for more than 80 percent of the ads generated by online searches. Litvack, who had vigorously opposed Michael Eisner's hiring of Michael Ovitz (and later famously remarked that he had walked behind Ovitz "with a shovel"), had been the Justice Department's antitrust chief under Jimmy Carter before joining Disney. The announcement of Litvack's appointment caused Google shares to dive 5.5 percent on the Nasdaq Monday. (See related item in TV section.)

THE WRESTLER PINS DOWN $4-5 MILLION

Demonstrating the value of a top award at a major film festival, Fox Searchlight has paid $4-5 million for distribution rights to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which won the Best Film award at the Venice Film Festival over the weekend -- and critical accolades for the performance of its star, Mickey Rourke. The deal was reportedly signed at the Toronto Film Festival, where the movie is also being screened, after what Daily Variety called "an intense wee-hours bidding war."

Brian B.