Burn after Reading is the first Coen Bros. movie to occupy the top spot at the box office. This probably has something to do with its aggressive marketing campaign, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the fact that it had the widest opening in the bros' careers (2,651 theaters). I'm sure fans of One Fine Day and Meet Joe Black were blindsided by what they saw, but by the time they got to their seats they had already paid for admission. The Coen Bros. beat another movie with a sterling cast: the poorly-received remake of The Women, with The Bening, Debra Messing (still?), Jada Pinkett-Smith, Meg Ryan (alive?), Eva Mendes and Candice Bergen (yum). That one came in No. 4, after Tyler Perry and the De Niro-Pacino rematch.
"Clearly, [Burn after Reading is] a smash, and it's obviously a reflection of how much more commercial the Coens have grown," said Jack Foley, distribution president for studio Focus, quoted in The Guardian. I'm sure this quotation sent Joel and Ethan into apoplexy.
So it took Clooney and Pitt to give them a distinction that's been missing from their mantle, which is lined with eight Oscars: box office champ. Here's the rundown of how their last seven movies opened. Note: Dollars/profit aren't at issue here; popularity/visibility is.
No Country for Old Men (2007). Opened 15th in 28 theaters. Reached No. 5 when it opened wider to 1,348 theaters. Its best-picture Oscar didn't raise it higher than there.
The Ladykillers (2004). The closest they'd previously gotten to No. 1. Opened 2nd in 1,583 theaters. Tom Hanks was the draw.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Opened 4th in 2,564 theaters, by far their widest open pre-Burn.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Opened 19th in 39 theaters; climbed to 13th when playing in 250 theaters.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Opened 27th in 5 theaters. Climbed to 9th when in 835 theaters.
The Big Lebowski (1998). Opened 6th in 1,207 theaters.
Fargo (1996). Opened 6th in 412 theaters. It's amazing it never climbed higher, but also keep in mind it was released in March 1996, so it was already on video by the time is got Oscar attention.
Source: Box Office Mojo. Rankings prior to 1996 aren't available, but I'm going to assume Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy didn't get anywhere near No. 1.