Disaster pic in B.O. bout with 'Tomorrow'

After months of anticipation, the opening bell has finally sounded in the heavyweight bout between Paramount’s “Titanic” and MGM’s “Tomorrow Never Dies,” both of which open in ultrawide release today.

There’s still no consensus among box office observers as to which film will emerge as the weekend champ. Adding to the uncertainty is “Scream 2,” which begins its second weekend after bowing to a holiday- record $39.2 million.

One thing is clear: Overall business — which last weekend was up an astounding 21% over the comparable frame a year earlier — will continue to soar. The question is, how much can the market expand during the busy pre-holiday period?

Market research indicates that interest in “Titanic” is huge. Extensive media coverage of the hugely expensive James Cameron-helmed disaster pic, which was originally scheduled for last July, has made “Titanic” one of the most anticipated films in recent memory.

Many B.O. prognosticators are betting on a $25-million-plus launch for the film.

But the picture’s three-hour-plus running time could prove to be a liability — in the short term at least. Not only will the epic length cut into the number of seatings per day, but older audiences, preoccupied with shopping and holiday parties may opt to see a shorter picture this weekend, saving “Titanic” for a quieter time.

Also, “Titanic,” which stars heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio, is likely to attract young females and teen couples on dates. But that’s a demographic the picture will have to share with “Scream 2,” which has been holding up remarkably well during the week, pulling in grosses of around $2 million per day. Even if it drops a hefty 60% from last weekend, it would still gross nearly $16 million.

On the other hand, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is likely to score higher with men of all ages, as well as African-American audiences. In fact, the film is tracking similarly to the previous Bond installment, “Goldeneye,” which bowed to $26.2 million on Nov. 17, 1995, eventually grossing $106 million domestically.

Of course, that film didn’t have to get into the ring with the likes of “Titanic” and “Scream 2.” Many B.O. seers expect Bond to finish a close second, with more than $20 million.

Also opening wide this weekend is DreamWork’s “Mouse Hunt.” Tracking indicates little interest in the special effects-driven comedy, which faces competition from Disney’s “Flubber” and Fox’s “Home Alone 3.” But kidpics are notoriously difficult to predict, so it’s still too early to count this one out.

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