Thanks to Brad Pitt and George Clooney's No. 1 comedy -- not to mention ''Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys,'' ''Righteous Kill,'' and ''The Women'' -- theatrical revenues were on the rise for the first time in weeks

By Joshua Rich
September 15, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

After several straight super-slow weekends, the box office has gotten fired up. Defying many projections, Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s comedy Burn After Reading led a team of four major new releases to generally better-than-expected performances, boosting the cumulative theatrical take by nearly 34 percent over the same frame a year ago.

Blazing the trail was Burn After Reading, which banked an impressive $19.4 mil, according to Sunday’s estimates. That’s the best debut ever, by far, for filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen: Of their 13 previous movies, only 2004’s The Ladykillers ($12.6 mil debut) and 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty ($12.5 mil bow) even premiered north of $10 mil. The opening sum was also good news for Pitt and Clooney, neither of whom has had such a big, non-Ocean’s opening in several years. To find one, you have to go back to 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith for Pitt and to, gosh, 2000’s The Perfect Storm for Clooney — although, to be fair, both actors tend to make a lot of small-release indie flicks.

For the Coens, it’s a sweet follow-up to their Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, which also wound up their top total grosser, with $74.3 mil. Can Burn After Reading do as well? It’ll be a challenge, considering the movie’s merely moderate reviews and a fall box office slate that’s only going to get more crowded. Still, this is a nice start.

Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys (No. 2) was next, with $18 mil. Though down a tick from the consistent $20 mil-plus bows of most of Perry’s movies, The Family That Preys did well considering that it wasn’t based on one of the auteur’s popular stage productions. Also welcome: That solid A CinemaScore review from audiences, who tend to abandon Perry’s films after the first weekend. Perhaps they’ll show this one more love in the long run.

Close behind at No. 3 was Righteous Kill, the Robert De Niro-Al Pacino reunion, which grossed a solid $16.5 mil. That’s the biggest non-franchise premiere for these two actors in ages, as well: De Niro’s Hide and Seek bowed to $22 mil in 2005, and Pacino’s The Recruit premiered with $16.3 mil in 2003.

As expected, the weekend’s other big opener, The Women (No. 4), fared worst, banking just $10.1 mil in nearly 3,000 theaters, though I suppose that sum could have been a lot lower. In actual fact, that’s Meg Ryan‘s best bow in — gasp! — almost a decade. Four-week holdover The House Bunny brought in $4.3 mil to round out the top five. Tropic Thunder (No. 6 with $4.2 mil) jumped the $100 mil mark, as did Step Brothers and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. And in art houses, Alan Ball’s controversial race/sex drama Towelhead enjoyed a nice $13,250 debut average in four locations.

Overall, the increased box office revenues were truly welcome; this was the first ”up” weekend in nearly two months. And that Hollywood was able to achieve some success without the help of Batman, well, hey, that’s even better.