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'Moneyball' to vie with 'Lion King,' 'Dolphin Tale' at box office

Brad Pitt's new baseball drama goes up against the 3-D version of Disney's 1994 blockbuster and a new family film for the No. 1 spot among weekend moviegoers.

September 23, 2011|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times

It will be a jungle out there at the box office this weekend, as one of Hollywood's leading lions faces off against a couple of formidable foes from the animal kingdom.

Brad Pitt's new baseball drama, "Moneyball," will fight for the No. 1 spot against last weekend's surprise winner, the 3-D version of "The Lion King," and a new family film, "Dolphin Tale." Each movie could launch with between $18 million and $20 million, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys.

"Lion King" proved it had bite even after its strong $30-million opening, pulling in more than $2 million a day since Monday. The re-release of the 1994 blockbuster is outperforming even Disney's expectations, prompting the studio to consider extending its original two-week run.

Meanwhile, two other new films, "Abduction" — Taylor Lautner's bid to transition from "Twilight" teen hunk to action star — and the action flick "Killer Elite" are expected to gross between $10 million and $14 million.

"Moneyball," which some pundits have already singled out as an awards contender, has so far earned exceptionally positive reviews from critics. The film, which cost Sony a little more than $50 million to produce, is based on Michael Lewis' bestselling nonfiction book about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's who uses an unconventional approach to analyze baseball statistics.

In the film, Pitt plays Beane, who upsets the Major League Baseball establishment by fielding a team of ragtag players.

The film has had a long journey to the big screen. Steven Soderbergh was scheduled to begin shooting the movie in 2009, but just days before filming was set to start Sony pulled the plug over financial and creative differences with the filmmaker. Roughly a year later, Bennett Miller was brought in to direct the picture using a revised script by Aaron Sorkin.

"Dolphin Tale," based on the story of an actual sea creature who lost his tail in a crab trap, is expected to resonate strongly with family audiences. The movie is being sold as an inspirational drama, a few of which have fared well at the box office in recent months. "Soul Surfer," a low-budget film about a girl who lost her arm in a shark attack, grossed a respectable $44 million worldwide and earned a rare "A+" grade from audiences, according to market research firm CinemaScore.

The current film, whose cast includes Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman, was produced for about $37 million by Alcon Entertainment and is being released by Warner Bros. Like "Soul Surfer," "Dolphin Tale" has in recent weeks been marketed to a faith-based audience as well as home-schooled children.

"Abduction" is Lautner's first major film outside of the lucrative "Twilight" series, which propelled him into the spotlight. Lionsgate spent about $35 million to produce the action movie, and the studio is hopeful that it will spawn a franchise similar to "Bourne Identity," starring Matt Damon.

The film so far is generating the most interest among Lautner's key demographic — teen girls — but if it is to ultimately succeed it will need to attract a broader audience. Meanwhile, Lionsgate needs a hit after a rough summer at the box office. Both "Conan the Barbarian," an expensive remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger '80s film, and the mixed-martial-arts drama "Warrior" were among the studio's recent flops.

"Killer Elite" is the first release from Open Road Films, a joint venture of theater operators Regal Entertainment and AMC Entertainment. The company, headed by former Weinstein Co. senior executive Tom Ortenberg, launched in March and plans to acquire and distribute eight to 10 movies a year.

The film, starring Robert de Niro, Jason Statham and Clive Owen, was financed by the Australian content-and-technology company Omnilab Media for about $70 million. Open Road, which is also paying to market the film, would not disclose how much it spent to acquire the film's U.S. distribution rights.

In limited release, Relativity Media's "Machine Gun Preacher," about a weapons-toting religious leader who travels to Africa, will open in a combined four theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

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