Will Smith has dispatched drug lords, aliens and robots. So a few chipmunks should pose no problem.
But 20th Century Fox's decision to open its family comedy "Alvin and the Chipmunks" today against Smith's sci-fi thriller "I Am Legend" shows there is no shame -- and potentially plenty of money -- in finishing a distant second at the box office.
Warner Bros.' "Legend" is expected to become Smith's seventh consecutive film to open No. 1 at the box office, with this weekend's ticket sales in the $50-million neighborhood. Fox hopes its counterprogramming move pays off with a solid No. 2 showing that gives its combination animated-and-live-action picture a market foothold in time for school holidays.
Fox has showed a knack for counterprogramming, as when "The Devil Wears Prada" held its own against "Superman Returns" in summer 2006, although its misfires include the 2005 Martin Lawrence basketball comedy "Rebound," which hardly upstaged "War of the Worlds."
"Successful counterprogramming has to offer a clear alternative, and we've got that: a pure, entertaining comedy for the whole family," said Pamela Levine, Fox's co-president of domestic theatrical marketing.
Although it won't win awards, "Alvin" is emblematic of a relatively inexpensive family movie -- think "Garfield: The Movie" and "Cheaper by the Dozen," both also from Fox -- that can clean up at the box office and on DVD.
Fox set up a website, www.munkyourself.com, that enables visitors to make a recording, hear it converted into the chipmunks' distinctively squeaky tones and then e-mail it to friends. Half a million users have tried it, the studio says.
Producer Ross Bagdasarian, whose father created Alvin and the Chipmunks as a novelty music act in 1958, believes the PG-rated movie will appeal not only to children under 10 but also to baby boomers.
"We've got three generations of fans," he said.
Older moviegoers remember the act's chart-topping songs such as "Witch Doctor" and its first incarnation as a cartoon show in the early 1960s. Others know Alvin, Simon and Theodore from a longer-running animated series in the 1980s.
The $70-million production, rated PG for its "mild rude humor," opens at 3,476 theaters in the U.S. and Canada and could get an initial bump from parents looking for lighter alternatives to "I Am Legend" as well as the high-brow Oscar bait that always comes with the holiday season.
Smith's movie, about a New York scientist who survives a mysterious plague only to battle bloodthirsty mutants, is rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence." It opens at 3,606 theaters.
The film's likable star and its premise -- best remembered from "The Omega Man," a 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend" -- are the chief selling points, said Dawn Taubin, Warner Bros.' president of domestic marketing.
"We latched on to the phrase, 'The last man on Earth is not alone,' and that was a concept that resonated with people," she said. "It offered a little mystery, almost a tease. And if there is going to be a last man on Earth, you're glad it's Will Smith."
No one doubts the movie, which cost more than $150 million to make, will open No. 1. The only question is how big it will be.
Industry analysts and executives at rival studios say the broad awareness of the film and keen interest indicated in moviegoer surveys point to an opening weekend as high as $65 million, while "Alvin" could end up at $15 million to $20 million.
Yari Film Group's family comedy "The Perfect Holiday," with a cast including Queen Latifah and Morris Chestnut, opened Wednesday, although another holiday-themed picture aimed at African Americans, "This Christmas," is already in the marketplace.
"The Kite Runner," adapted from Khaled Hosseini's acclaimed novel set in Afghanistan, opens today in limited release for Paramount Vantage.
Warner executives are striving to temper expectations, which studios typically do to ward off the possibility of a high-profile disappointment. Dan Fellman, the studio's president of domestic distribution, said Thursday that he'd be "very happy" if "I Am Legend" hit $40 million.
Smith's best opening came in 2004 with the futuristic thriller "I, Robot," at $52 million -- but that was in the heart of summer, with children out of school, Fellman noted. All four of Smith's pictures to open higher than $50 million were July releases.
Although Smith has been promoting the movie with appearances on "60 Minutes" and at Grauman's Chinese Theatre -- where he sunk his hands and feet into cement and flashed a smile for the cameras -- he hasn't had the benefit of appearing on the big late-night talk shows because of the writers strike.
Fellman said he was watching the weather reports with trepidation, as storms threatened to pound East Coast cities.
"Rain is good, cold is fine and heat is even better because it drives people into air-conditioned theaters -- but snow and ice are ugly," he said.