Universal Pictures is gunning for No. 1 at the box office this weekend with the high-octane thriller "Death Race." Focus Features, the studio's specialty arm, just hopes to rev up some buzz for "Hamlet 2," its irreverent comedy opening in limited release.
Produced for $45 million, the R-rated "Death Race" is a loose remake -- "re-imagining" is the term Hollywood types favor -- of the violent, futuristic 1975 B movie "Death Race 2000." It stars Jason Statham, who is building a following playing rough-edged heroes in the McQueen-Bogart-Projector mold, and the ever-classy Joan Allen as you've never heard her before, cursing a blue streak. The movie looks headed for a $16-million launch, based on consumer tracking.
That could be enough to top the charts, although "Death Race" faces competition from Sony Pictures' comedy "The House Bunny," starring Anna Faris as a former Playboy bunny who becomes house mother to a clueless pack of sorority sisters, and DreamWorks/Paramount's holdover action farce "Tropic Thunder."
Projector's hunch is that female empowerment plus sex appeal will enable the PG-13-rated "House Bunny" to hop off with bragging rights.
For the R-rated "Hamlet 2," opening at only 103 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, the goal is to create chatter ahead of Wednesday's expansion to 1,500-plus locations. Focus, which snapped up worldwide rights for $10 million at January's Sundance Film Festival, hopes it has a breakout hit. The comedy stars Steve Coogan as a Tucson high school drama teacher who stages an absurd musical sequel to the Bard's original play.
Indie blockbusters such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Juno" have been rare in today's crowded market, but Focus says it already has recouped much of its initial investment in "Hamlet 2" through foreign territory sales, so it doesn't need the film to be a smash. Even so, the relatively light competition in late August and throughout September has been "merciful" to past Focus releases including the 2005 thriller "The Constant Gardener," said Jack Foley, president of distribution.
Strong business for the recent string of R-rated comedies "Step Brothers," "Pineapple Express" and now "Tropic Thunder" has audiences primed for more, Foley says: "We're playing into that vortex of satisfaction."
The back story of "Hamlet 2" could be worthy of Hollywood. With a $9-million budget, it was the first major film from the producing team of Eric Eisner (son of former Walt Disney Co. honcho Michael Eisner) and Russian tycoon Leonid Rozhetskin, who brought in experienced producer Aaron Ryder to help shepherd the project.
After wrapping the shoot, director Andy Fleming and the postproduction team whipped up a rough cut in three weeks to show the Sundance brass and a spiffier version a few weeks later. Executive producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who produced "Little Miss Sunshine," helped persuade Sundance to hold a slot open for the late entry, which ended up wowing the hipster crowd.
Two months after toasting the film's sale to Focus, Rozhetskin vanished from his Latvian vacation home. Authorities fear he was slain, but no remains have been found and the case is unsolved.
Coogan, whose hapless character hopes to save the school's drama department with his ill-conceived play, says "Hamlet 2" can click with mass audiences as well as those in search of something different.
"Underneath, it's an old story about a guy who's trying to do the right thing," he said. "It has a lot of heart but there's a proper sense of anarchy and edginess to it."
"Death Race" could benefit from Universal's maneuvering through the release calendar. The young- and male-skewing film had been set for Sept. 26, but the studio moved it to steer clear of the DreamWorks/Paramount thriller "Eagle Eye," starring Shia LaBeouf, and to seize summer play dates with some schools and colleges not yet back in session.
Under-25 females will be the main audience for "The House Bunny," which was produced for $25 million and comes from the screenwriting team behind the 2001 success "Legally Blonde." Faris, from "The Hot Chick" and the "Scary Movie" series, could be on the brink of becoming a major star.
Box-office prospects look softer for two other releases.
Dimension Films and MGM's "The Longshots," a PG-rated, football-themed family movie starring Ice Cube and Keke Palmer, is tracking for a $7-million opening. That would be enough for a spot in the top 10 but not another hit on the scale of 2005's "Are We There Yet?"
"The Rocker," a PG-13 comedy from 20th Century Fox starring Rainn Wilson, opened Wednesday to $577,000, indicating that forecasts of a $6-million weekend from some analysts might be optimistic.
But the film is certainly striking a chord with the Lyons clan. In print ads, reviewer Jeffrey Lyons of NBC's "Reel Talk" calls Wilson "hilarious," and his son, Ben, of the E! network, declares the film "the surprise comedy hit of the summer!"
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The new films "The House Bunny" and "Death Race" and the holdover "Tropic Thunder" could battle for No. 1 in a three-way scramble at the box office this weekend. Along with the movies listed below, contenders to make the top 10 include "The Rocker." These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue estimated grosses Sunday and actual results Monday.
*--* Movie 3-day prediction Through the Weeks (studio) (millions) weekend
1 The House Bunny (Sony) $16.3 $16.3 1
2 Tropic Thunder 15.8 66.3 2 (DreamWorks/Paramount)
3 Death Race (Universal) 15.7 15.7 1
4 The Dark Knight (Warner 10.5 489.8 6 Bros.)
5 The Longshots (MGM) 7.4 7.4 1
6 Star Wars: The Clone Wars 5.8 25.7 2 (Warner Bros.)
7 Mirrors (20th Century Fox) 5.1 20.8 2
8 Mamma Mia! (Universal) 4.7 124.6 6
9 Pineapple Express (Sony) 4.7 73.6 3
10 The Mummy: Tomb of the 4.2 94.2 4 Dragon Emperor (Universal) *--*
Source: Times research
Los Angeles Times