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Studios hoping for late presents

The post-Christmas weekend is good for box office, and three new films take on 'National Treasure' for No. 1.

December 28, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Co. has more unwrapping to do.

Three new releases came out on Christmas Day, but the action-adventure sequel "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," starring Nicolas Cage, is likely to repeat at No. 1 with another weekend haul of about $40 million -- essentially getting a second opening instead of the usual second-week drop-off in ticket sales.

"We're not competing with the malls this weekend, so we should get more of the family audience," said Chris LeRoy, Disney's executive vice president of distribution. Last weekend, "Treasure" opened to $44.8 million, with 29% of its business coming from families.

Pre-Christmas is an ideal launch pad for movies because consumers have plenty of time to head to their local multiplexes during their vacations, and they often go to three or four films.

A year ago, the Ben Stiller comedy "Night at the Museum" opened at No. 1 with $30 million the weekend before Christmas, then surged 21% the next weekend. During the rest of the year, movies typically slide 50% in their second weekends.

The year-end lift also bodes well for "I Am Legend" from Warner Bros. and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" from 20th Century Fox. The critters may scurry past Will Smith this weekend for the first time and rise to the No. 2 spot from No. 3 last weekend. But either way, the three holdover hits look likely to lead the charts again.

Fox's Christmas Day counter-programming effort, "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," was the strongest of Tuesday's new films and should attract young males craving action, so it stands a shot at cracking the top three. The sequel to 2004's "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" took in $9.5 million on Christmas to place a close third for the day behind "Legend," although the gap widened Wednesday.

The movie, reportedly produced for $70 million though Fox declined to disclose the budget, is about warring alien and predator races that descend on a small town where unsuspecting residents band together to fight for survival.

Aiming to please genre fans, Fox kicked up the action a notch from the PG-13 "original" -- actually a blend of two franchises -- and got an R rating this time for "violence, gore and language." So far, the more restrictive rating does not seem to have dampened the audience -- and it may be helping to woo back the young adults who were younger teenagers for the first installment.

"The Great Debaters," a drama about a professor at a small, all-black college in 1930s Texas who inspired his debate team to great heights, is getting a big Oscar push from Harvey Weinstein, a co-founder of Weinstein Co.

In a year of bleak films such as "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," Weinstein thinks its feel-good, underdog appeal could help "The Great Debaters" snag "the fifth nomination" as best picture. That would boost its long-term box office and DVD potential.

Weinstein said he was encouraged by the movie's $3.6-million opening Tuesday, but even more by exit polls showing that 93% of viewers rated the picture "excellent" or "very good."

"We're seeing a big crossover to white audiences," he said, noting robust ticket sales in such places as Tucson, Reno and Sherman Oaks. More than 40% of the opening-day audience was non-African American.

Director-star Denzel Washington and producer Oprah Winfrey have promoted the $25-million film on morning and daytime TV shows -- including, of course, Winfrey's show. Though a plug from Winfrey can turn an obscure novel into a bestseller, her ability to turn a niche film into a mainstream hit is still untested.

The challenge for Weinstein and distributor MGM will be reaching young males.

"No 17-year-old guy is going to rush out and see a movie with a title like 'The Great Debaters,' " Weinstein said, "but once they start hearing about it from their girlfriends and family members, our audience will get younger."

The low-budget comedy "Juno" from Fox Searchlight could continue zooming up the charts by taking in about $10 million in its first wide expansion, consumer tracking surveys indicate. It might vie with "The Great Debaters" and the other major new release, the family-oriented fantasy "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," for the weekend's No. 5 spot.

"The Water Horse," a $44-million production from Revolution Studios and Walden Media that Sony Pictures is distributing, is a kinder, gentler creature feature alternative to "Aliens vs. Predator." With a mostly British cast, the PG-rated picture tells the story of a lonely boy who discovers a mysterious egg that hatches a creature of Scottish legend: the Loch Ness monster.

Another late entry in the Oscar derby, Paramount Vantage's critically acclaimed "There Will Be Blood," started Wednesday exclusively at two upscale theaters, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, and figures to put up monster numbers this weekend on a per-theater basis.

Trying to create an event -- and positive buzz -- around writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's searing period drama starring Daniel Day Lewis as an oilman on the California frontier, the specialty distributor will also hold "preview" screenings in 14 cities at midnight Saturday.

Cineastes will show up in force. And Vantage might get a few extra bucks from misguided horror fans lured by the provocative title.


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