Biz looks to MLK day for stronger showing

January is famously sluggish for moviegoing, but this weekend reps a potentially busy frame thanks to the Martin Luther King holiday, a trio of wide openers and some significant film expansions.

More than 93% of U.S. schoolkids will be off for the MLK holiday Monday, and many adults will also clock out for the day. So Sunday grosses should be much stronger than usual unless inclement weather or pro football telecasts prove B.O. spoilers.

“The first couple weekends of the New Year generally represent something of a lull for new releases,” said Dan Marks, exec veep at B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. “So the Martin Luther King weekend serves to kick-start the new box office year.”

Universal opens the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston laffer “Along Came Polly” today, with 2,984 engagements. The Mouse House bows “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet” — a modestly budgeted toon drawing solid early reviews — in 2,027 locations. And Warner Bros. unspools Ice Cube actioner “Torque” in 2,463 theaters.

Elsewhere, Miramax is adding 500 runs for its Civil War drama “Cold Mountain,” which will thus reach more than 2,802 theaters in its fourth release frame.

Pre-release tracking showed “Polly” is pulling well among both younger and older males and femmes.

“All indications are that it’s tracking solidly across all quadrants of audiences polled,” U distribution maven Nikki Rocco said.

“Polly” could ring up high teen millions through Sunday, likely finishing No. 1 on the weekend.

“Teacher’s Pet” is aimed at younger kids but could broaden on that demo if teens are enticed to theaters by critical enthusiasm for the Nathan Lane-voiced toon, which is based on a Disney Channel TV show.

“Out of the blue, these things sometimes happen to you, and only time will tell if it translates into business,” said Disney distrib prexy Chuck Viane.

If its auds are limited to ankle-biters, the “Pet” opening could be capped at the single-digit millions over three days.

“Torque” is another wide opener looking to broaden on its core constituency. Motorcycle actioner looks likely to gross about $10 million, or just a bit more if it manages to draw well outside of core urban theaters.

“We’re optimistic for the weekend,” Warners exec VP distribution Jeff Goldstein said.

“Cold Mountain” should fetch at least $5 million-$6 million through Sunday thanks to its boosted theater count. Jude Law-Nicole Kidman starrer looks to sustain market traction prior to the announcement of Oscar noms Jan. 27.

In an innovative strategy minimizing print expenditures, Miramax moved into new and smaller markets using prints from existing venues where the pic — which totes a 2:33 running time — had been playing on two screens to maximize showtimes.

“We had sent two prints to some theaters because it’s a long movie and we were limited on the number of showtimes,” Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands explained. “Now that we’re into the fourth week of the run, it makes sense to bring down a lot of those theaters to one screen and still utilize those second prints.”

Several art films will look for strong weekends to bolster platformed campaigns and extend positive buzz from recent critical and guild kudos. Among them are Newmarket’s “Monster,” which adds 125 playdates for a total of more than 200, and Lions Gate’s casino drama “The Cooler,” expanding to 420 locations from a previous 77.

Also, DreamWorks will offer sneak previews of its Jan. 23 release “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” in more than 700 U.S. theaters Friday and Sunday. Distrib will sneak romancer in select Canadian venues on Saturday.

Warner laffer “Kangaroo Jack” was the top opener over last year’s MLK weekend, with $21.9 million contributing to an industrywide haul of $151 million through the Monday holiday.

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