Horsing around at B.O.

Well-bred 'Seabiscuit' takes on the tentpoles

A trio of theatrical thoroughbreds will hit the box office track this weekend, including a horse of a different color.

Universal is sending out “Seabiscuit,” based on a bestselling book about the famously winning racehorse. Releasing such an adult-oriented drama in the heart of popcorn-pic season is a counterprogramming ploy of the sort seen now and again, but lavish marketing and loudly whispered hopes of early Oscar traction give the gambit much more prominence.

Tobey Maguire-toplined saga is set for about 2,000 playdates — a relatively modest number for a major wide release. The tempered rollout reflects the distrib’s belief that prospects for big “Seabiscuit” box office lie not in the short sprint but over the longer haul.

Also lined up at the starting gate is Paramount’s action sequel “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” with 3,200-plus engagements. And one stall over is Miramax/Dimension’s third installment in a family-oriented action franchise, “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over,” set for 3,344 theaters.

After a big bow for Sony’s “Bad Boys II” and the previous big launch of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the arrival of three notables means the ho-hum summer could mark a rousing conclusion to July.

So what’s an adult-oriented drama doing in the thick of such summer frenzy?

“We felt we had a great opportunity to counterprogram with something that was more about classic storytelling and broad appeal,” U distrib maven Nikki Rocco observed.

Similarly, helmer Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) insists the unbridled populist themes in “Seabiscuit” should play broadly.

“It’s about people triumphing against tall odds, and it would be a little hypocritical of us to have this wonderful populist story and try to release it preciously in October,” Ross said. “I don’t think there’s a rule about these things. We just want to give as many people a chance to see the film as possible and so wanted to release it at a time of year when more people are going to the movies.”

Some industryites question how the pic will play in smaller markets, but there appears to be reason for optimism regarding pic’s big-city appeal. Hollywood’s ArcLight Theater rung up enough pre-sale biz to warrant its skedding a first showtime for 12:01 a.m. Friday — an unusual move for a non-actioner.

Tracking among younger demos had been light until this week, when young femme interest strengthened significantly. Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper also have starring roles, but pic’s media campaign has focused on Maguire and that’s has likely helping with younger females.

Still, it’s highly unlikely “Seabiscuit” — or “Spy Kids,” for that matter — will outpace Par’s “Tomb Raider” sequel this weekend. So to minimize its risk as “Seabiscuit” tries to leg out a profitable run, U has taken aboard Spyglass and DreamWorks as financial partners on the pic.

‘Croft’ kickoff

The first “Tomb Raider” opened in June 2001 with $47.7 million. Few expect the sequel to bow as big, but an opening in the range of $25 million-$35 million is anticipated.

“We have a very good movie this time, and it’s (a matter) of getting that word out to the public,” Par distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen said.

With “Tomb Raider” the presumed frontrunner, the weekend’s real jockeying will likely come in positions three through 10.

“Bad Boys II” is likely to ring up more than $20 million over its second weekend, and “Pirates” has a shot at a similar number over its third frame. Then there’s the question of whether U’s horse can outmuscle the “Spy Kids” sequel.

The original “Spy Kids” opened at $25.5 million in March 2001, and “Spy Kids 2” debuted with $16.7 million in August. Even if the third “Kids” opens closer to the lower figure, that could put it in a tight horse race with “Seabiscuit.”

“We expect to do well,” Miramax distrib topper Mike Rudnitsky said. “We’re the fresh, young people’s movie.”

Summer of discontent

Meanwhile, even with three notable openers and a couple of strong holdovers, industrywide grosses will be hard-pressed to match the robust B.O. of a year earlier. That’s when “Austin Powers in Goldmember” blew off the starting line with $73.1 million in opening coin, helping to shape an impressive weekend haul of $151.9 million.

Matching or surpassing that figure is considered a difficult but potentially doable feat.

“The three pictures this year — while none will reach the ‘Austin Powers’ altitude — do appeal to different portions of the demographic marketplace,” said Dan Marks, exec VP at B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. “So if the three new pictures all strike home, they could combine with the strong holdovers to surpass last year’s figure.”

So far, summer 2003 is roughly flat with a year ago. But ticket price increases since last summer mean admissions are off considerably.

Industrywide B.O. has posted year-over-year upticks the past two weeks after significant declines the previous four frames.

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