Oscar hopefuls open wide for new auds

With nearly three-fourths of the nation’s school kids and many U.S. workers off Monday, it’s no wonder distribs will unspool a whopping five wide releases over the Presidents Day weekend.

Openers include Bruce Willis starrer “Hart’s War,” tooner “Return to Never Land,” Britney Spears’ debut “Crossroads,” youthful laffer “Super Troopers” and family drama “John Q.” Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Collateral Damage,” the No. 1 pic last weekend, still reps the most notable action title in its soph sesh.

Meanwhile, some current players could see considerable new B.O. life this weekend after fetching notable Oscar noms Tuesday.

Perhaps the best positioned among them are Miramax’s “In the Bedroom” and USA Films’ “Gosford Park,” both nominees for best picture. Both started as limited-release arthouse titles, whose growing popularity has allowed crossover to commercial venues via platformed expansions.

“Bedroom” will broaden to 1,000 playdates on Friday. “Park” will park in one more theater than last weekend at 837, and a more ambitious further expansion is expected in subsequent frames.

“We’re shooting for 1,200 on Feb. 22,” USA distrib chief Jack Foley noted.

Best pic nominees “A Beautiful Mind” from Universal/Imagine and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” from New Line are sure to get a B.O. boost this weekend, even though both are well into wide-release runs. But 20th Century Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” won’t get a theatrical bounce from its best pic nom, as the musical is already available on homevideo.

Commenting on the wide variety of openers, Dan Marks, exec VP at box office tracker ACNielsen EDI, said, “The distributors have done a very good job this year of varying the type of pictures they’re sending out. That could allow individual pictures to see good business.”

“It’s a real nice family weekend that’s always been terrific (for moviegoing) with school out in so many areas,” observed Chuck Viane, distrib topper at the Mouse House.

New Line’s “John Q,” a controversial yarn about health care issues, reps the best shot at a broadly appealing opener this frame.

Nix the crix

Set for some 2,466 theaters, Denzel Washington starrer is tracking reasonably well across the board. But opening-frame exit interviews could prove interesting following toxic early reviews from critics.

“The only place we have any weakness at all is with females under 25,” New Line distrib prexy David Tuckerman said.

Tuckerman predicted “John” will prove an audience success despite critical brickbats, similar to distrib’s earlier experience with last year’s “Life as a House” and current player “I Am Sam.”

Disney bows kid tooner “Return to Never Land” in about 2,400 theaters Friday, with distrib figuring “Peter Pan” spinoff to perform much like last year’s modestly budgeted “The Tigger Movie.” That “Winnie the Pooh” spinoff, which opened at $9.4 million over a three-day frame last February, grossed $45.6 million domestically.

MGM’s World War II drama “Hart’s War” unspools in 2,459 venues. Adult drama is expected to draw mostly older males.

Paramount will send out Britney Spears starrer “Crossroads.” Set for 2,380 playdates, pic skews heavily toward females under 25.

“We’ve got a well-defined audience, and they certainly know about the film,” Par vice chairman Rob Friedman said, pointing to a big marketing campaign through corporate cousin MTV. “It’s a horse race this weekend, and we’ll be in there mixing it up.”

‘Troopers’ target

Tracking data has been quiet for Fox Searchlight’s “Super Troopers,” which debuts with 1,778 engagements. Laffer’s best hopes of audience traction appears to be with younger males.

“It’s very targeted to the 18- to 24-year-olds,” Fox Searchlight distrib prexy Steve Giulula said.

Guilula added that specialty distrib’s “threshhold of success is modest” on the pic, a $3 million pickup at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Elsewhere, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Last Orders” figures among frame’s limited openers. Michael Caine starrer unspools in L.A. and Gotham venues.

And Miramax’s Iris Murdoch biopic “Iris” hits the top 20 domestic markets. Release follows an earlier Academy-consideration limited run; pic fetched Oscar noms for topliner Judi Dench and supporting thesps Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.

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