Can ‘Austin’ power B.O.?

Buzz, expectations say sequel could easily top $50 mil

Last weekend’s threadbare box office looks likely to prove a one-weekend shortfall if New Line strikes the kind of motherlode that’s predicted for “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”

New Line bows its third-in-a-franchise spy spoof in 3,613 theaters today, with industryites saying opening perf should easily top $50 million.

And that could be good news for more than just New Line, as conventional wisdom says buzz generated from such big bows has a beneficial effect on other current releases.

“It gets people wanting to go to the movies,” DreamWorks distrib topper Jim Tharp said.

The original “Austin” debuted with $9.5 million in May 1997 and the first sequel opened at $54.9 million in June 1999.

“You always want to do better than the last one,” said New Line distrib prexy David Tuckerman. “So that’s our expectation.”

Sneak peek

New Line offered 2,416 “Austin” sneak peeks Thursday night, but those grosses won’t be reflected in weekend totals.

Also bowing in wide release today is Disney’s kids-and-parents affair “Country Bears,” tagged for 2,553 locations. But frame also serves as an important soph sesh for another family live actioner, Sony’s “Stuart Little 2.”

Meanwhile, Paramount/Intermedia will try to salvage a decent soph sesh from sub drama “K-19: The Widowmaker” after a poor launch last weekend. Modestly budget horror pic “Eight Legged Freaks” from Warner Bros./Village Roadshow seeks to avoid a drop from the top 10 in its second frame.

And DreamWorks adds about 100 engagements — for a total 2,250 –over a third sesh for Tom Hanks starrer “Road to Perdition.”

DreamWorks appears well validated in its strategy of adding playdates this week and last after securing a solid second-place bow with “Road to Perdition” over the July 12 frame. Gripping but dark, the mob-themed adult drama finished No. 1 last weekend and now seems headed north of $100 million domestically.

‘Bears’ market

“Country Bears” is a modestly budgeted live-action adaptation of a Disney World theme-park attraction of the same name. Never intended as a B.O. behemoth, “Bears” will likely remained caged in the single-digit millions over opening sesh.

Sony marketing and distrib boss Jeff Blake expressed hope that “Stuart Little 2” follows the market pattern of the original CG-mouse laffer. The 1999 release bowed respectably — at $15 million vs. sequel’s $15.1 million — and then went on to gross a more impressive $140 million overall domestically.

“Stuart 2” opened a close second to “Perdition” last weekend, but has out-performed the market each weekday since then.

“But as always, we’ll have to wait to see how it does this weekend,” Blake said.

Industrywide, B.O. was off 18% last weekend from the same frame in 2001. But 21 of the preceding 22 weekends had seen year-over-year upticks, and industryites are hoping the frame was a mere aberration.

“It’s my impression that it was just a one-weekend thing,” DreamWorks’ Tharp said, noting mid-week grosses have shown signs of renewed vigor. “But people aren’t really sure why that was last weekend.”

And it’s just such uncertainty that caused one distrib to comment recently on the eve of a high-profile event pic: “Nothing’s for sure until the grosses come in.”

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