LOS ANGELES – Halloween came early at movie theaters as "Saw III" sliced up the competition with a $34.3 million debut, the best opening yet for the gory horror franchise.
Lionsgate's "Saw III" easily took over as No. 1 at the box office, bumping off Disney's dueling-magicians saga "The Prestige," which slipped to third place with $9.6 million, according to studio estimates Sunday. "The Prestige" raised its 10-day total to $28.8 million.
Martin Scorsese's mob tale "The Departed" held strongly again, taking in $9.8 million to place second for the third-straight weekend. The Warner Bros. film lifted its total to $91.1 million.
Revenues for "The Departed" were down just 27 percent from the previous weekend, compared to 35 percent for "The Prestige" and 38 percent for Clint Eastwood's World War II epic "Flags of Our Fathers," which was No. 4 with $6.35 million.
Paramount's "Flags of Our Fathers," which cost $90 million to produce, has gotten off to a slow start, raising its 10-day total to $19.9 million. The acclaimed film still could follow the pattern of Eastwood's last two movies, "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," which became hits on the strength of Academy Awards buzz.
Focus Features' South African drama "Catch a Fire" premiered weakly with $2 million in 1,306 theaters, averaging $1,541, compared to $10,830 in 3,167 cinemas for "Saw III."
"Catch a Fire" stars Derek Luke and Tim Robbins in the story of a black family man driven to rebel against South Africa's apartheid system in the 1980s.
The far-flung drama "Babel," whose ensemble cast includes Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, had a huge opening in limited release, grossing $365,801 in seven theaters. The film traces the consequences of a tragedy in the desert on families in Africa, Mexico and Japan.
Distributor Paramount Vantage plans to open "Babel" nationwide on Nov. 10.
The Dixie Chicks documentary "Shut Up & Sing" debuted solidly in limited release, taking in $50,798 in four theaters. Released by the Weinstein Co., the film explores the furor after lead singer, Natalie Maines, told a London concert crowd on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003 that the music trio was ashamed President Bush was from Texas, their home state.
Hollywood remained on a box-office roll, with business up for the fifth straight weekend. The top 12 movies took in $89.1 million, up 2.4 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Saw II" opened at No. 1 with $31.7 million.
Since the low-budget "Saw" debuted with $18.3 million over the same weekend two years ago, Lionsgate has turned the franchise into an annual ritual with quickly produced sequels each Halloween.
The movies follow the diabolical schemes of psycho killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), who stages elaborate, bloody games to test the moral fiber of his victims. Lionsgate plans to have "Saw IV" in theaters over Halloween weekend next year.
"It's the biggest no-brainer of the century to put these movies out on Halloween weekend and wait for the money to roll in," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Saw III," $34.3 million.
2. "The Departed," $9.8 million.
3. "The Prestige," $9.6 million.
4. "Flags of Our Fathers," $6.35 million.
5. "Open Season," $6.1 million.
6. "Flicka," $5 million.
7. "Man of the Year," $4.7 million.
8. "The Grudge 2," $3.3 million.
9. "Marie Antoinette," $2.85 million.
10. "Running With Scissors," $2.55 million.