A scene from "Wreck-it Ralph." (Disney Animation Studios )
Disney's new "Wreck-It Ralph," set in the world of video games will likely take the high score at the box office this weekend, but studio executives are unsure what effect the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy will have on movie attendance.
The animated feature about a fictional game villain seeking acceptance in an arcade filled with characters licensed from real games such as "Street Fighter," "Pac-Man" and "Q*bert" should open to between $45 million and $50 million this weekend, according to people who have seen pre-release surveys.
That will be well ahead of two other new films, the Denzel Washington drama "Flight" and the kung fu film "The Man with the Iron Fists."
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But a big question mark is the East Coast. Impassable roads and a lack of electricity caused by destructive weather could keep some theaters closed. On the other hand, people who have been stuck in their homes for the past few days may also be eager for a distraction such as a movie.
More than 300 theaters were shut down by the storm earlier this week, but that number has been declining each day. Two studio distribution executives said they were not sure exactly how many theaters will still be closed this weekend.
"Wreck-It Ralph," which has been in and out of development at Disney for more than a decade but moved ahead in its current form starting in 2008, has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. With a family-friendly story in a setting familiar to single young men (who are typically the least likely to turn out for animated pictures), the studio hopes "Wreck-It Ralph" will play to virtually everyone.
Disney has advertised the movie aggressively, starting with the Summer Olympics, and has run commercials aimed at men and women, young and old. It has also created viral Internet content aimed at gamers, including fake commercials for Litwak's Arcade, where the movie takes place.
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If word-of-mouth on "Wreck-It Ralph" is good, it could play well into the holiday season. If successful, "Ralph" is well positioned to spawn sequels and be utilized throughout the Disney machine of theme parks, television, consumer products and more.
It could also continue the comeback of Disney Animation Studios, the company's Burbank-based team that has long been in the shadow of corporate sibling Pixar Animation Studios. That started to turn around two years ago with the hit "Tangled," which opened to $48.8 million in the U.S. and Canada and ultimately grossed $200.8 million. Overseas, it took in an additional $389.9 million.
"Ralph" also opens in Russia and Mexico this weekend, followed by China next week. It's then set to roll out in other countries between December and February.
"Flight," about an alcoholic airline pilot (played by Washington) who is involved in a mysterious crash, marks a return to live-action drama for director Robert Zemeckis, who spent years working on motion-capture animated movies such as "The Polar Express," "Mars Needs Moms," and "A Christmas Carol" after succeeding earlier with more traditional movies, including "Cast Away" and "Forrest Gump."
Reviews have been largely positive, but adult-oriented dramas remain one of the most commercially challenged genres in Hollywood. Surveys indicate "Flight" is appealing more to women over 25 than men.
Paramount Pictures spent $31 million to make the film, which is expected to open to about $15 million. A studio spokeswoman had a more modest prediction of $12 million.
"The Man with the Iron Fists" is a low-budget bet from first-time director RZA, best known for his work with the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Universal Pictures spent only about $15 million to make the picture, which features Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu and is officially "presented" by Quentin Tarantino, who mentored RZA.