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''Ultimatum'' slays the competition

”The Bourne Ultimatum” scores north of $70 mil, making it the best August opener in history

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Bad guys, bullets, box-office records — this weekend, nothing got in Jason Bourne’s way. Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin made a killing in theaters as The Bourne Ultimatum premiered at No. 1 with a huge $70.2 million gross. That’s the best August opening ever (beating the $67.4 mil debut of 2001’s Rush Hour 2). It’s also the top debut for Damon, director Paul Greengrass, and the entire Bourne franchise (previous installments of which opened with $27.1 mil and $52.5 mil).

Of greater interest to me, however, is the fact that this is the eighth bow north of $70 mil in 2007 — a truly eye-opening stat when you consider that there have only been 28 such premieres in history. That’s right, more than a quarter of all the huge debuts of all time have come in this year alone. Why? I’ll leave the film-quality debate up to you, but let me just submit three points. One, with ticket prices constantly on the rise (the average cost of one movie admission is fast approaching $7), filmmakers can milk more money out of the same theater-going public from one year to the next. Two, with studios pouring more money into advertising (the average marketing budget on a film is $34.5 mil, but that number is probably doubled or even tripled for certain summer blockbusters) they can attract broader crowds. Three, with screen counts for big releases getting bigger and bigger (The Bourne Ultimatum opened in 500 more venues than 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, and in 1,000 more theaters than 2002’s The Bourne Identity) audiences often have no choice but to see the top releases each week, because those films are the only ones playing near them.

Sure, these stats aren’t new, this argument isn’t new, and none of this is to say that The Bourne Ultimatum (or 300, Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, or The Simpsons Movie — the year’s other $70 mil-plus openers) isn’t worthy of its incredibly good fortune. I just think we really need to be taking all this talk of records and high-eight-figure openings with a grain of salt, considering how stacked the deck is. Whatever metaphor we use, let’s just never forget to ask ourselves: Shall we really be so impressed?

In fact, if we move down the chart to No. 2, we find The Simpsons Movie, last weekend’s big new flick, in a strange position. The film brought in $25.6 mil and it has banked $128.5 mil domestically in 10 days, but it still declined a humongous 65 percent this weekend. And that’s pretty disappointing. I mean, what good is a huge opening if you can’t hold onto more than 35 percent of your audience?

Elsewhere, Underdog (No. 3) was the only other decent opener, barking up a respectable $12 mil. While holdovers dominated most of the rest of the top 10 — I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (No. 4 with $10.5 mil), Hairspray (No. 5 with $9.3 mil), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (No. 6 with $9.3 mil), No Reservations (No. 7 with $6.6 mil), and Transformers (No. 8 with $6 mil) — all edged out Andy Samberg’s Hot Rod (No. 9 with $5 mil — ahem, more like, not-so-Hot Rod!) and the live-action Bratz adaptation (No. 10 with $4.3 mil).

Among smaller fare, Jennifer Lopez’s salsa biopic El Cantante bowed at No. 12 with a so-so $3.3 mil, while the Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy, scored a strong $10,100 average in 100 locations.

Overall, the box office was up 25.5 percent from a year ago (when Talladega Nights led the way with a $47-mil debut). So congratulations to all. With a grain of salt.