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Action film ‘Sahara’ No. 1 at box office

USA Today

The middle of the country squared off against the coasts this weekend at theaters, and the heartland pushed “Sahara” to No. 1 at the box office.

The desert action film starring Matthew McConaughey took in $18.5 million, according to studio estimates.

The weekend’s other major new release, the Drew Barrymore/Jimmy Fallon romantic baseball comedy “Fever Pitch,” was third with $13 million.

The previous weekend’s No. 1 movie, “Sin City,” slipped to second place with $14.1 million, lifting its 10-day total to $50.7 million.

From the outset, “Sahara” and “Fever Pitch” catered to different audiences.

“Pitch,” the story of a man torn between his love for his girlfriend and his devotion to the Boston Red Sox, was hoping to lure women with the romance and men with the sports angle.

“Sahara,” meanwhile, geared itself toward action-hungry audiences, particularly in the middle of the country.

Adapted from Clive Cussler’s adventure novel, the film stars McConaughey, Penelope Cruz and Steve Zahn as adventurers who turn up a long-lost Civil War vessel in the desert and try to stop a plague spreading through Africa.

To hawk the movie, McConaughey crossed the country in his Ford pickup, hauling an Airstream trailer with “Sahara” advertising. He stayed at trailer parks and visited baseball stadiums during spring training.

“He went everywhere,” says Wayne Lewellen, distribution chief for Paramount, which released “Sahara.” “He saw this as an opportunity to let people get to know him and his movie.”

The tactic paid off. Though “Pitch” was the top film in several big-city markets, including Boston and New York, “Sahara” took the No. 1 spot in cities like Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo.

“Sahara” soared with its summerlike tone, said Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

“People have been watching ads for movies like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘Star Wars,’ and they’re getting primed for summer action,” he said. ” ‘Sahara’ fit that bill.”

As for “Fever Pitch,” Dergarabedian said, “It may have alienated guys with too much romance, and it may have alienated women with too much baseball.”

But women made up 58 percent of the audience for “Fever Pitch.” That may bode well for the movie’s long-term prospects, since films appealing to women often have a longer shelf life than movies aimed at men.

Executives at distributor 20th Century Fox say they expect to more than recoup the film’s $30 million budget.

“I could easily see this taking in $50 million,” distribution chief Bruce Snyder said. “The reviews are good, and audiences are having a good time.”

Overall, Hollywood continues to struggle. For the seventh straight week, ticket sales lagged behind the same weekend a year ago – the longest such losing streak since 2000.

Revenues for the year have fallen slightly behind those of 2004, when Hollywood rang up record domestic grosses of $9.4 billion.

Family films are still hanging in there, with PG and PG-13 movies calling most of the shots. “Guess Who,” “Beauty Shop,” “Robots,” “Miss Congeniality 2,” “Hitch,” “Ice Princess” and “The Pacifier” are still in the Top 12, with the latter crossing the $100 million mark over the weekend.

And in limited release, Stephen Chow’s raucous action comedy “Kung Fu Hustle” had a big opening weekend with $293,025 in only seven theaters.

Already a hit in Asia, “Kung Fu Hustle” features writer-director Chow as a two-bit crook in pre-revolution China whose antics land him in the middle of a showdown between mobsters and martial-arts heroes. The movie expands to nationwide release April 22.

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