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LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - "Don't Breathe," a twisty story of a group of teenage delinquents who pick the wrong house to burglarize, dominated the late summer box office, debuting to a potent $26.1 million and topping charts. It joins a long list of recent horror films such as "The Purge: Election Year," "The Conjuring 2," "Lights Out," and "The Shallows" that have all found success with audiences. It's a genre that's particularly attractive to studios, because these films don't require much in the way of special effects or star power, making them cheaper to produce than comic book adventures and science-fiction fantasies.
"These are the films of bean counters' dreams," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. "They are profit machines and even when they're poorly reviewed, people line up for them."
"Don't Breathe" was backed by Sony's Screen Gems and Steve Bersch's Stage 6 Films, and cost less than $10 million to produce. It more than doubled its production budget in a single weekend, after rolling out across 3,051 locations. The film follows a gang of thieves who find out that the blind man whose house they've targeted isn't as helpless as he appears. Instead of making off with loot, they are pitted in a deadly cat-and-mouse game.
Sony screened the film at SXSW and Comic-Con in order to build buzz. It also relied heavily on digital platforms to drive enthusiasm for the picture, debuting spots on Snapchat, crafting animated gifs for Twitter and Facebook, and launching interactive mobile apps.
"This film is going to be a big moneymaker for us," said Rory Bruer, Sony's distribution chief. "We knew we had something special here. This is a film that's all about keeping people jumping out of their seats and holding on to the person next to them."
"Don't Breathe" displaced "Suicide Squad" from its perch atop charts. After finishing in first for three consecutive weekends, the super villain mash-up had to settle for second place this weekend with about $12.1 million at 3,582 locations. The Warner Bros. release has earned $282.9 million.
Among new releases, Lionsgate bowed "Mechanic: Resurrection," a follow-up to the 2011 cult hit "The Mechanic," in 2,258 locations, where it earned $7.5 million. That's less than the first "Mechanic's" $11.4 million domestic debut. The sequel centers on an assassin (Jason Statham) who is lured out of retirement for a series of hits. It co-stars Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Yeoh, and Jessica Alba.
Fans of the 44th president got a tour down memory lane with "Southside with You" from Roadside Attractions and Miramax. The romantic drama looks at Barack and Michelle Obama's first date, debuting to $3.1 million from 813 sites. It will have a modest increase in screens next weekend. The film hits theaters as popular opinion of the Obama administration continues to rise, but the improvement in the president's standing didn't factor into release plans, the studios say.
"It helps, but we weren't banking on it," said Howard Cohen, Roadside Attractions' co-president. "If it had been the reverse, it might have given us pause, but it's not like we read the approval ratings and said, 'ok, let's go to 800 screens."
The Weinstein Company countered with the boxing drama "Hands of Stone," a biopic about Panamanian fighter Roberto Duran, that opened to $1.7 million at 810 locations. The indie label plans to expand the film to roughly 2,500 locations over Labor Day. Executives at the company said they were particularly pleased by the film's A CinemaScore rating; a sign that the film is being embraced by those who see it.
"People love the movie," said David Glasser, the Weinstein Company's COO and president. "The conversation around the movie has begun and we think it's going to continue to keep building."
In third place, Focus Features' "Kubo and the Two Strings" added $7.8 million to its $24.8 million domestic haul. Sony's "Sausage Party" nabbed fourth position, picking up roughly $7.7 million to bring its total to just under $80 million. Rounding out the top five, Disney's "Pete's Dragon" snagged $7.3 million driving its stateside gross to $76.2 million.
In limited release, Sony Pictures Classics bowed "The Hollars," a family dramedy that marks "The Office" star John Krasinski's feature film directorial debut, on four screens where it made $46,068, for a per-theater average of $11,517.
Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "Ben-Hur" solidified its status as one of the year's biggest bombs joining the likes of "Ghostbusters" and "The Huntsman: Winter's War." The biblical epic dropped 60% to $4.5 million, bringing its total to $19.6 million. Rival studios estimate that the film could lose $100 million, while sources close to the film peg that figure as between $60 million to $75 million. MGM put up 80% of the film's cost.
Overall revenues were up 31% from the year-ago period; a weekend that saw the debut of the religious drama "War Room" and the Owen Wilson thriller "No Escape." After a sluggish start and a series of high-profile bombs such as "The BFG" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass," ticket sales have rebounded. Receipts are running neck-in-neck with last year and some think that this summer's revenues could be the second highest in history when not factoring in inflation.
That's somewhat deceptive, however. Ticket prices have hit record highs, which are helping to boost revenues. As it currently stands, ticket sales could be the lowest in roughly two decades, according to Box Office Mojo.
"These films have no longevity," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. "Hollywood gave audiences what it thought they wanted -- a bunch of sequels and reboots -- and guess what, it didn't work. So they have to ask themselves, what can we offer now?"