The North American box office reached a stunning low over the weekend as the Olympic Games TV coverage began. The weekend grosses were down 33% from the same period last year and represent the lowest since Sept 11-13, 1998.

Only DreamWorks SKG's Almost Famous - which is co-financed by Columbia TriStar in return for international rights - posted impressive numbers, grossing $2.3m at 131 theatres for a mighty average of $17,550. The movie, written and directed by Cameron Crowe and loosely based on his own experiences, premiered to warm reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend and opened in New York and Los Angeles last Wednesday (Sept 9). Newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the young Crowe, commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to follow a rock band called Stillwater (an amalgam of The Eagles, The Allman Brothers and others) around the US. The film also stars Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances Macdormand, Anna Paquin, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The release follows a similar strategy employed by the studio last year on American Beauty which premiered at Toronto and went straight into the market on a limited release. Almost Famous will go onto an additional 500 screens next weekend (Sept 22). Columbia TriStar will give the film its international premiere at the London Film Festival in November and launch it internationally in January.

Meanwhile independently produced thriller The Watcher held on to the number one spot with a mere $5.7m, bringing its total to $17.3m. Warner Bros' badly reviewed comedy thriller Bait starring Jamie Foxx was a poor second with $5.5m. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers), it stars Foxx as a hapless jailbird who shares a cell with a gold thief who may or may not have told him the whereabouts of his stash. Castle Rock Entertainment produced for Warner.

The only other new opener was Hollywood Pictures' Duets, the karaoke ensemble drama which premiered at Toronto last week. Directed by Bruce Paltrow and starring his daughter Gywneth Paltrow, Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman, Maria Bello, Paul Giamatti and Scott Speedman among others, it took $2m at 581 screens for a mild average of $3,442 per screen.

Next weekend looks only marginally more promising with the widening of Almost Famous and the opening of Columbia's Urban Legends: Final Cut. And you never know, Warner Bros' re-release of The Exorcist with rediscovered scenes inserted by director William Friedkin might turn heads in such a turgid marketplace.

Film (Distributor)/International distribution/Estimated weekend gross/Estimated total to date
1 (1) The Watcher (Universal) Interlight Pictures $5.7m $17.3m
2 (-) Bait (Warner Bros) Warner Bros $5.5m --
3 (3) Bring It On (Universal) Beacon/BVFS $5.1m $50.9m
4 (2) Nurse Betty (USA Films) Intermedia $4.7m $13.6m
5 (6) What Lies Beneath (DreamWorks SKG) 20th Century Fox $2.6m $145.7m
6 (5) Space Cowboys (Warner Bros) Warner Bros $2.53m $82.2m
7 (4) The Cell (New Line) New Line International $2.45m $55m
8 (-) Almost Famous (DreamWorks SKG) Columbia TriStar $2.3m --
9 tied (-) Duets (Buena Vista) BVFS $2.0m --
9 tied (re) Scary Movie (Dimension) Miramax International $2.0m $151.7m