The all-star ensemble dark spy comedy stars Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand and had been expected to open in the mid-teen range.
The result dwarfed the film-maker's previous high of $12.6m with The Ladykillers in 2004, a stunning result that Focus' president of distribution Jack Foley attributed to a 16% under-25 crowd drawn by the hip cast that allowed the film to play late into the night, an unusual quality for an adult film. Burn After Reading averaged $7,319 from 2,651 theatres.
'People tend to avoid releasing movies this weekend but those of us who did all won,' Foley said, adding that the market had grown soft in recent weeks and mature audiences had seen all there was to see. 'The weekend took advantage of the hunger for good movies.'
Foley referenced the benefit of launching at the two major autumn festivals. 'Venice is such a prestigious international platform for the movie and to cap it off when we got to Toronto the streets were lined with people who wanted to see Brad and the rest of the cast.'
Focus will keep Burn After Reading in the same number of theatres heading into the second weekend before Eagle Eye opens in two weeks. 'These first two weeks are extremely rich and need to be exploited,' he said.
Lionsgate opened Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys in second place on $18m, another strong result that was higher than predicted. Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates play matriarchs of families that try to weather a scandal.
Overture Films opened the crime thriller Righteous Kill starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in third place on $16.5m. Despite mostly poor reviews the film had been widely predicted to open top. Picturehouse's remake of The Women opened in fourth on $10.1m and stars Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith and Eva Mendes.
Elsewhere the usual suspects shuffled about a bit. Sony's comedy The House Bunny continued to benefit from strong word of mouth surrounding Anna Faris' star turn as a displaced Playboy Bunny and climbed one place to fourth in its fourth weekend on $4.3m for $42.2m.
DreamWorks-Paramount's comedy Tropic Thunder finally crossed $100m in its fifth weekend and ranks sixth on $102.9m. Warner Bros' The Dark Knight in seventh added $4m for $517.7m after nine. Last weekend's champion Bangkok Dangerous, released in North America through Lionsgate, plummeted seven places and stands at $12.5m after two.
Overall box office for the weekend was expected to pass $100m, marking the end of a seven-week decline in year-on-years revenues.
Next weekend's wide releases are Lionsgate's comedy My Best Friend's Girl with Kate Hudson and Dane Cook; The Weinstein Company/MGM's animated comedy Igor voice by John Cusack, Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon, among others; DreamWorks-Paramount's comedy Ghost Town starring Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear; and Sony's thriller Lakeview Terrace with Samuel L Jackson. Paramount Vantage will open The Duchess starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes in limited release.
Estimated Top 10 North America Sept 12-14, 2008
Film (Dist)/Int'l dist/Est wkd gross/Est total to date
1 (-) Burn After Reading (Focus Features) FFI $19.4m -
2 (-) Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys (Lionsgate) Mandate Int'l $18m -
3 (-) Righteous Kill (Overture Films) Nu Image/Millennium $16.5m -
4 (-) The Women (Picturehouse) Inferno $10.1m -
5 (4) The House Bunny (Sony) SPRI-various $4.3m $42.2m
6 (2) Tropic Thunder (DreamWorks-Paramount) PPI $4.2m $102.9m
7 (3) The Dark Knight (Warner Bros) WBPI $4m $517.7m
8 (1) Bangkok Dangerous (Lionsgate) Initial Entertainment Group $2.4m $12.5m
9 (5) Traitor (Overture) Paramount Vantage Int'l $2.1m $20.7m
10 (7) Death Race (Universal) UPI $2m $33.2m