Warner preps massive 'Potter' rollout

Warner Bros., though frantically seeking to manage through-the-roof box office projections for its “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” hopes to bow the hugely anticipated release in an unprecedented number of theaters on Friday.

Hollywood’s previous widest bow came last summer, when Paramount sent out “Mission: Impossible 2″ to a then-record 3,653 theaters. DreamWorks’ “Shrek” toon, which bowed on May 16 with 3,587 playdates, holds the record for “widest point of release” after jumping to a whopping 3,715 engagements later in its run.

Sources on Tuesday said the distrib was uncertain whether the final theater count for “Harry Potter” will come in just above or under that record, but it’s a lock that the family adventure will fly on an historic 7,000-plus screens due to an unprecedented number of multi-screen theater bookings.

Print-distribution numbers are more closely guarded than theater counts. But it’s known that during the recent summer spree of super-saturation releasing in 3,000-plus theaters, distribs occasionally mounted print runs in the 5,000-6,000 range.

To contextualize the numbers, consider that there are only about 40,000 screens in just over 7,000 theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile, Warners is trying hard to manage expectations of the first-weekend B.O. for “Potter,” which enjoys a built-in fan base thanks to the series of books on which it’s based. The pic, which has elicited largely favorable response in early screenings, is widely expected to break the standing records for three-days bows.

Twentieth Century Fox’s “Planet of the Apes” holds the mark for non-holiday frames, grossing $68.5 million domestically after bowing July 27. Over the first three days of the Memorial Day 1997 weekend, Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” opened to $72.1 million and grossed $90.1 million through the four-day holiday.

Most observers say there’s little question “Potter” will beat the “Apes” mark, and it’s just a matter of by how much.

“The number’s going to be slightly above $80 million,” predicted David Davis, senior veep and box office analyst for Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin. “That’s based on simple math about butts in seats. There will be a record number of screens and a virtually sold-out weekend.”

Asked about such speculation, Warner reps gave responses like “Nothing’s certain until a picture opens.” One exec played it so safe as to suggest only that $50 million-plus was likely.

The caution is traceable in part to Disney’s experience with World War II actioner “Pearl Harbor” this summer. A financial winner for the studio with worldwide B.O. well north of $450 million, Disney nevertheless has been beset by constant suggestions that pic has proved a U.S. disappointment.

That’s because “Harbor” is still fighting to reach $200 million domestically, after analysts had forecast $250 million-plus in North American B.O. for the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay extravaganza.

This weekend, most distribs will stay out of the path of “Potter.” The only other wide opener this week is Lions Gate’s urban laffer “The Wash,” which bows today in a barely wide 759 theaters and thus figures a safe bet in the single-digit millions.

Separately, Warners recently fixed a release date — Feb. 8 — for Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Collateral Damage.” The film was skedded for Oct. 5, but became the most prominent of several pics bounced from distribs’ fall and winter skeds after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Actioner has a terrorist theme, but a studio spokeswoman said no pic content has been altered since it was pulled from the distrib’s release sked.

(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.)

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