Will lit legends and buccaneers ignite tix sales?

Two pricey tentpoles go after overlapping auds this weekend as a lumbering summer box office hits the home stretch.

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced pic based on the well-known Disneyland ride, opened Wednesday in 3,023 theaters. Early grosses were promising, even as 20th Century Fox prepares to unspool rival actioner “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” in 3,002 locations today.

“Pirates” took in $13.5 million in opening-day booty. That would seem to signal a five-day haul of at least $60 million and a Friday-Sunday gross well north of $30 million.

Fox’s PG-13 rated Sean Connery starrer plays a bit older than the similarly rated “Pirates.” But “League” will still knock heads with the Mouse in going after the date crowd and other groups of moviegoers.

That’s partly because “Pirates” topliner Johnny Depp has drawn early kudos for his quirkily magnetic perf — sort of a stoned Keith Richards playing pic’s Captain Jack Sparrow. So related buzz could generate substantial adult interest in addition to pic’s core family appeal, and even Fox execs were projecting “Pirates” will top weekend box office rankings.

” ‘Pirates’ will probably have a bit stronger weekend, because it will draw younger (patrons) and teens, and usually those kids are there the first weekend,” Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that one will outgross the other over the long term, however.”

“Pirates,” which also features thesps Orlando Bloom (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and Keira Knightley (“Bend It Like Beckham”), was helmed by Gore Verbinski (“The Ring,” “The Mexican”).

“League” will be looking for solid, if slower, support among adult demos, Snyder said.

Still, Fox greenlit “League” with dreams of creating a movie franchise — and then sold off a substantial piece of the pic to German film investor Mediastream. Some suggest the move signals shaken faith in the movie.

Pic’s ensemble cast — portraying quirky-but-heroic literary figures — also features lesser known thesps, such as Richard Roxburgh (“Moulin Rouge”) and Peta Wilson (“Mercy”). “League” was helmed by “Blade” director Stephen Norrington.

Mouse distrib boss Chuck Viane said he launched “Pirates” a couple days early in the hope of generating positive word of mouth for the weekend. Pic expands to 3,269 playdates today.

“It will take the edge off of the Friday-through-Sunday gross,” Viane observed. “But this is a movie that will speak for itself, and I think we’ll do very well over the weekend.”

Assuming “Pirates” does outpace “League,” the remaining question is where “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” will land in the B.O. pecking order over action sequel’s soph sesh.

Big releases have dropped at least 50% in their second weekends. Such a decline would produce a $22 million haul for “T3,” potentially enough to finish No. 2 over the upcoming frame.

“I expect it to hold pretty good,” Warner Bros. distrib topper Dan Fellman said. “We have great word of mouth.”

Weekend will compare with a week-earlier sesh marked by soft Friday biz due to the July 4 holiday, and that should help holdover pics avoid big B.O. drops, Fellman added.

The holiday’s falling on a Friday prompted yet another downbeat weekend for industrywide box office. Sesh was off 11% from the year-earlier holiday weekend, which followed an Independence Day that fell on a Thursday.

So far, summer B.O. is off 3% from a year ago. Year-to-date, 2003 is down 4.6% from the same portion of last year.

The coming weekend will be compared with a relatively robust year-ago frame boasting $131 million in industrywide grosses. Rankings were topped by a $25 million soph sesh for “Men in Black 2,” with “Road to Perdition” and three other new pics all opening in the double-digit millions.

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