Hostel tore $19.6 million out of 2,195 theaters, temporarily topping stalwarts The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and King Kong.
Distributed by Lions Gate, writer, director and producer Eli Roth's gore-fest about young Americans who become unwilling subjects of a pay-to-torture service during a pleasure trip to Europe cost $4.8 million to make. Its opening was in the same league as the like-minded Saw and more than double Roth's last picture, Cabin Fever—two other horror hits from Lions Gate.
"Tracking had been going up and up throughout the week," said Lions Gate's president of domestic distribution, Steve Rothenberg. "We were hoping to be in the mid-teens. Certainly, we were very gratified to do $20 million."
Brandished with "Quentin Tarantino Presents" before the title—the Kill Bill director served as an executive producer—Hostel started at Sony's niche division, Screen Gems. Genre specialist Lions Gate came on board later and handled the domestic distribution rights—backing the picture with an $18 million prints and advertising campaign—while Screen Gems retained foreign rights.
Typical of the genre, youths checked into Hostel at a higher rate than other demographics—the under 25-year-old set constituted 65 percent of the audience in Lions Gate's Friday night exit polling, while 60 percent were male.
"My whole theory was that if it's scary, the public will really respond to it," Roth told Box Office Mojo in a phone interview on Sunday. "People want their horror to be horrific. They don't want it to be safe."
Roth suggested that Hostel was also a popcorn movie and a date movie, given the genre's roller coaster appeal—cathartic thrills and chills in a safe environment. "Right now, it's all about Brokeback Mountain, and people need an alternative to that," he said. "People don't want to see just Oscar movies."
Last year, another horror picture, Universal Pictures' supernatural White Noise, delivered a surprisingly strong $24.1 million opening at 2,261 venues on the first weekend of January.
"Certainly, we saw what [Universal] did last year on this date," said Lions Gate's Rothenberg. "We absolutely said to ourselves that this is a great release date, and let's emulate what they did." Roth noted that Hostel was positioned two weeks before Screen Gems stable mate Underworld: Evolution to avoid audience cannibalization.
In addition to the release date, Hostel's marketing was similar to White Noise, which itself wasn't original. Both campaigns brazenly used three classic ploys for promoting horror movies. First comes the suggestion that the picture is based on reality or "inspired by true events," as Hostel's trailer phrased it. Then there's the "what if?" scenario—one Hostel commercial intoned "What if the voice, the blood and the flesh was yours?" Third is the warning to potential audiences that the movie is unbearably scary. Another Hostel spot declared in bold type that "At recent advanced screenings, paramedics were called in response to theater-goers' reactions to the film's intensity. You've been warned."
With Hostel, Lions Gate continues to make a name for itself as a purveyor of horror and other genre pictures. "We can't compete mano a mano with the studios, so we have to go into the niches, whether it's horror, comedy or movies for African-American audiences," said Rothenberg. The distributor strategically placed the Hostel trailer in front of Saw II, ran ads on cable television channels MTV, Comedy Central and Spike TV, and tied key spots to WWE, NFL and the season finale of Nip/Tuck.
Lions Gate's next wide release will be Madea's Family Reunion, Tyler Perry's follow-up to Diary of a Mad Black Woman, at over 2,000 theaters on Feb. 24.
After a neck-and-neck struggle over the holidays, The Chronicles of Narnia had its most decisive victory over King Kong yet. Narnia dropped 39 percent to $15.6 million, versus Kong's 49 percent fall to $12.6 million. The totals stand at $247.8 million and $192.7 million, respectively.
Bowing to dismal returns outside of the top 12 were Grandma's Boy and BloodRayne. Distributor 20th Century Fox tried to sell Grandma's Boy on the basis of its R-rated antics, but that motivated few to see it. Produced by Adam Sandler and featuring his cronies, the comedy finagled $3 million from 2,015 theaters.
BloodRayne, the maiden nationwide release from Romar Entertainment, fared even worse. Up until opening day, the distributor said it had close to 2,000 theaters lined up for the latest video game adaptation from director Uwe Boll (House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark), but then on opening day that number was knocked down to 985 theaters. On Monday, Romar projected an estimated $1.55 million for the weekend, although other distributors had the movie closer to $1.2 million.
Meanwhile, Buena Vista sneaked Glory Road at 831 theaters on Saturday, attached to The Chronicles of Narnia, and reported a 70 percent capacity. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced basketball drama is scheduled to open at over 2,100 theaters on Friday.
• 1/9/06 - Utah Theater Snub Can't Bridle 'Brokeback Mountain'
• 10/31/05 - 'Saw II' Gores 'Zorro' on Halloween Weekend
• 1/10/05 - 'White Noise' Resonates with $24M Debut
• 11/1/04 - 'Ray,' 'Saw' See Robust Bows
• All Time - Top January Openings
• Weekend Box Office Results
NOTE: This report was originally published on Sunday, Jan. 8 and was updated on Monday, Jan. 9 with actual grosses.