Eclectic pix hope for Christmas cheer

Welcome to the Christmas crush.

Crowding theaters, three wide releases take flight this weekend, led by Paramount’s family film “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which bows in 3,620 theaters. Sony delivers “Spanglish” in 2,438 while 20th Century Fox launches “Flight of the Phoenix” in 2,438.

Though moviegoers will have plenty of holiday bustle to distract them, the weekend before Christmas has been a lucrative one for the past three years thanks to New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Last year, final installment “The Return of the King” collected $124 million after opening Wednesday, Dec. 17.

It’s doubtful this weekend’s films will be big enough to fill those shoes. Along with the wide releases, a slew of limited fare, including Miramax’s “The Aviator” and Warner Bros.’ “Million Dollar Baby,” is opening or expanding with hopes of drafting off buzz generated by the flurry of awards and nominations, including the Golden Globes, announced this week.

This all makes for an extremely crowded marketplace. “The theaters have more films than they can play,” said Par distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen. Nonetheless, Paramount has high hopes for its Jim Carrey starrer. Dark kidbook series “Lemony Snicket” is immensely popular with tykes, and its huge fan base is likely to push the pic into the top spot.

Core aud for “Snicket,” Lewellen said, “starts at 8 or 9 and goes up to the 15- and 16-year-olds who read the book.” Pic also should lure some adult fans of the book series as well as Carrey’s fan base.

But, Lewellen added, “It’s tough to get a big number this time of year because everyone is tied up with Christmas.”

Adult fare

Both “Spanglish” and “Phoenix” are expected to play primarily to adults.

Sony distrib prexy Rory Bruer said “Spanglish,” from helmer-scribe Jim Brooks and starring Adam Sandler, is expected to play moderately over time rather than open big and burn out quickly.

“We’re feeling really good about it,” he said. “It’s not going to be one of those numbers that’s going to make people go ‘Whoa!,’ but it’s going to be the kind of film that legs out.”

Sony saw that kind of perf with Brooks’ last outing, 1997’s “As Good as It Gets,” which opened Christmas week with $12.6 million and ultimately rang up $148 million. Sony repeated the feat last year with “Something’s Gotta Give,” which opened with $16.1 million two weeks before the holiday and ultimately amassed nearly $125 million.

Fox distrib topper Bruce Snyder said he also has modest expectations for the opening of “Phoenix” and is looking to an extended run through Christmas and into the new year.

‘Million Dollar’ figures

Bowing with limited runs are “The Aviator” on 40 screens and “Million Dollar Baby,” which started on eight screens on Wednesday. Both pics collected Globe noms for picture and director (Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, respectively), among other citations.

On its opening day, “Baby” averaged $4,452 per screen for a total take around $36,000.

“Everybody sort of leads with their chins when it comes to movies they’re trying to position for Academy accolades,” said Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman. “Some succeed and some miss. It’s risky, but the rewards are great if you have the right film, and we think Clint has delivered.”

Also opening are Globe contenders “The Sea Inside,” which Fine Line debuts on 23 screens, and Lions Gate’s “Beyond the Sea,” which starts on six. Sony Pictures Classics is starting a one-week Academy-qualifying run in Gotham and L.A. for “Imaginary Heroes.”

Other pics in the running for kudos are expanding after their Globe nominations. Miramax will boost “Finding Neverland,” which received nom including best pic (drama), to 985 screens, up 448 from last weekend.

Sony’s “Closer,” which drew five noms including pic (drama), is moving into 1,098 houses, up 468. “We got a shot in the arm with the Golden Globe nominations,” said Sony’s Bruer.

In its first two weeks, pic has grossed a bit more than $15 million.

Longer engagements

Also expanding are several of the Globes’ foreign-language pic nominees. Warner Independent’s “A Very Long Engagement” will add 20 venues after playing on four screens for the past three weeks. Pic then is slated to bulk up to 166 engagements on Wednesday. Sony Classics brings its “House of Flying Daggers” to 145 screens, up from its original 15.

“This is the toughest week of the year for art film,” said Warner Independent distrib chief Steven Friedlander. “You have three times as much competition for one third of the audience.”

The key to success is to be one of the films that catches fire and is positioned well for the lucrative Christmas week, Friedlander added. “On the 25th, the gate should open for the films that are well reviewed and have good word of mouth.”

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