"High School Musical 3: Senior Year" is the third installment of Walt Disney Co.'s franchise in the last three years, a surprise cash cow that ran on cable TV and now springs to the big screen.
"Saw V," its potential rival for No. 1 this weekend at the box office, is the fifth movie in Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate's lucrative horror series in the last five years.
If other industries recycled their material as regularly as Hollywood, global warming would be a distant memory.
Consumer tracking for the G-rated "High School Musical," produced for a reported $11 million after tax incentives, points to an opening of $25 million to $40 million, according to executives at three studios. The R-rated "Saw," made for $10.8 million, is expected to snag about $30 million this weekend. In other words, presidential pollsters aren't the only ones who can't figure out whether we're on the brink of a landslide or a squeaker.
Projector, whose Disney pals just love it when he sets the bar sky-high, is tossing the tracking and predicting a launch of more than $45 mil- lion for "High School Musical" based on hunch and anecdotal evidence.
The upbeat musical, re-teaming Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale et al., and conveniently introducing a fresh-faced sophomore class, feels like a phenomenon a la "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour" or the racier "Sex and the City" -- ideal escapist fare for these harsh times.
The musical has accounted for more than 80% of this week's presales at Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com.
With two high-profile sequels targeting loyal and vastly different audiences, exhibitors should benefit from a jump in overall box office.
Chuck Viane, Disney's distribution president, said his "dream" was to break the opening mark for a live-action musical, held by "Mamma Mia!" at $27.8 million. Though 17.3 million people tuned in last year to Disney Channel's premiere of "High School Musical 2," Viane cautioned that the new film is a bit of a question mark as the first theatrical version.
Even so, he said the audience could broaden beyond the tweens and their moms who make up the series' fan base.
"You're always looking to be entertained, and maybe a bit more so than ever," Viane said. "But the play's the thing: Make a fun movie and people will come."
"Saw," of course, has nothing to prove. The series is Hollywood's answer to the swallows of San Juan Capistrano: It returns every year on pretty much the same date, though at Halloween instead of in March, and with more blood.
The last three films in the series -- about a killer named Jigsaw and his apprentices, who set crafty death traps with weapons like razor-edged pendulums instead of relying on the old stick-a-steel-blade-in-a-guy's-eyeball approach -- each opened to more than $30 million in ticket sales and ranked No. 1.
Projector, who dials 911 at the onset of an ice cream headache, will steer clear of "Saw V," but tracking shows hardy fans will flock to see what the filmmakers have come up with this time.
This weekend's other releases include the Edward Norton-Colin Farrell cop drama "Pride and Glory," a roughly $30-million production that Warner Bros. inherited from New Line Cinema, which could open to $7 million. Two award season contenders, Clint Eastwood's mystery "Changeling" and writer-director Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," enter limited release to get word of mouth going.
"Saw V" producer Mark Burg predicts an opening of $28 million -- if only everyone in Hollywood were so easy to pin down -- and, looking ahead, expects the movie to hold up better in the market than "Saw IV."
Burg hopes his picture's restrictive rating, earned for "sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and brief nudity," doesn't crimp sales this weekend.
"Hopefully, teenagers won't buy tickets to 'High School Musical' and sneak into our movie," he said.
Who says Hollywood doesn't back family values?
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"High School Musical 3" and "Saw V" will dominate the box office. Along with the films below, top-10 contenders include "The Nightmare Before Christmas" in 3-D. These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue estimates Sunday and results Monday.
*--* Movie 3-day prediction Through the Weeks (studio) (millions) weekend
1 High School Musical 3: $46.6 $46.6 1 Senior Year (Disney)
2 Saw V (Lionsgate) 26.7 26.7 1
3 Beverly Hills Chihuahua 7.0 78.1 4 (Disney)
4 Pride and Glory (Warner 7.0 7.0 1 Bros.)
5 The Secret Life of Bees 6.7 19.9 2 (Fox Searchlight)
6 Max Payne (20th Century Fox) 6.7 28.6 2
7 W. (Lionsgate) 6.0 19.4 2
8 Eagle Eye 4.2 87.0 5 (DreamWorks/Paramount)
9 Body of Lies (Warner Bros.) 4.0 30.8 3
10 Quarantine (Sony) 2.8 29.0 3 *--*
Source: Times research
Los Angeles Times