Pix vie for presents at holiday B.O.

The Christmas weekend is typically the strongest stretch on the calendar, but when Christmas falls on a Saturday, as it does this year, prognosticating is difficult and distribs are not very merry.

Christmas Eve is a notoriously weak day at theaters, and biz on Christmas Day normally doesn’t really pick up until evening shows.

Because opening on Christmas this year means just a two-day weekend, several distribs decided to start early with Wednesday bows, like the frame’s front-runner, Universal’s “Meet the Fockers,” which opened in 3,518 theaters.

Also bowing in advance of the holiday is Warner Bros.’ “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera” in 622 venues. Fox waits until Christmas Day to unwrap “Fat Albert” in 2,674 locations.

Also Saturday, Miramax’s “The Aviator” boosts its run to 1,796 after opening on 40 screens last weekend. And Disney will release “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” in 1,103 new engagements after two weeks on solo exclusive screens in Gotham and L.A.

The last time the holiday fell on a Saturday, in 1999, biz was spread thin. “Any Given Sunday,” which opened the previous Wednesday, was the top film with $20.6 million over five days and $13.6 million over the weekend. But three other pics managed more than $10 million in the frame: new release “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and holdovers “Stuart Little” and “Toy Story 2.”

Industry estimates for “Fockers” first five days run well past $40 million, and online ticket service Fandango reports 30% of all its biz this week has been for “Fockers” tickets.

On the limited side, MGM/UA brings “Hotel Rwanda” out on seven screens in Gotham, L.A. and Chicago and Newmarket unveils “The Woodsman” on six screens in L.A., Gotham and San Francisco.

The fight for the second spot could become hairy. As well as the newcomers, holdover family pics could contend. With the majority of tykes now on break, last week’s champ, Paramount’s “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” has been posting extremely strong midweek numbers: more than $4 million a day. And Warners’ toon “The Polar Express” is going into what should be its strongest playtime.

Fox distrib chief Bruce Snyder said “Fat Albert” will be positioned to earn some of the family biz when it opens Saturday, but added, “This is such a weird calendar” that predictions are difficult.

Meanwhile, Warners hopes to strike the right chord with “Phantom,” which it will expand to wide release on Jan. 21. “We’ve modeled our plan after ‘Chicago’ and ‘Moulin Rouge.’ ” The first flight of theaters, he said, “are the cream of the crop” from those prior musicals’ runs.

Kudos contender watch

With a flood of awards contenders in the market, the biz on “Aviator” and “Aquatic” will be closely watched. Both played well in L.A. and Gotham, but high-end pics have had difficulty this season in their national break.

Disney distrib chief Chuck Viane said the studio has seen a broadening of the aud in “Aquatic’s” two-week run. “Our experience so far is we have the fanatical fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, but we are also starting to get other movie fans.”

On the limited side, “The Woodsman” is the only pic that will open Christmas Eve. Bob Berney said that while biz is slow nationally, “It’s big in Manhattan and L.A.”

Meanwhile, MGM distrib chief Erik Lomis said he’s pushing for “Rwanda,” which has attracted some critical kudos and Globes noms, to eventually reach a national release pattern. “We’re going to expand into 23 more markets on Jan. 7 to about 150 theaters. Hopefully, it does big business and we can go wide with it.”

Also opening this weekend are Lions Gate’s “The Keys to the House” on two bicoastal screens, Wellspring’s “In the Realms of the Unreal” on two in Gotham and San Francisco and Wolfe’s “Producing Adults” on a solo screen in L.A.

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