‘Kingdom’ vies with hot ‘Wax’

Are horror, history hot enough?

Is summer finally here? Two major releases are heading into theaters this weekend: Fox’s Ridley Scott historical epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” bowing at 3,216 theaters, and Warner Bros. slasher remake “House of Wax,” at 3,111.

Also opening in wide release is Lions Gate’s “Crash” at 1,864 venues.

“Kingdom of Heaven” was planned by its studio as the kickoff of the summer season. Horror pic “Wax” has bounced around the calendar, finally settling on its opening date just a few months ago as a counterprogramming move.

One carries a budget of $130 million, the other closer to $40 million. Trailers for one promise viewers battle setpieces on a massive scale; the other offers a glimpse of Paris Hilton’s death.

And yet, going into opening weekend, the two pics are on surprisingly equal footing. “Kingdom of Heaven” is the favorite for this weekend’s box office crown, but “Wax,” following other hot horror pics, isn’t expected to be too far behind.

Nevertheless, the combined perfs do not seem likely to wake up the biz, which has been mired in a 10-week slump. Execs throughout the industry are waiting for people to simply show more interest in going to the movies.

It is doubtful that ticket sales in the coming weekend will cross the $100 million mark. By comparison, last summer started off with the $52 million opening of “Van Helsing” — seen at the time as a bit of a disappointment — which boosted total weekend B.O. to $112 million.

When it skedded “Heaven,” which stars Orlando Bloom, for the first week of May, Fox was hoping the pic would reproduce the $35 million opening of Scott’s last historical pic, “Gladiator,” which opened May 5, 2000. Appealing to an adult aud, that pic grossed more than $1 million each weekend for 12 weeks, finally cuming $187 million. The $47 million opening of “Troy” on the second week of May also showed that the early summer was a good time for historical epics.

Since then, however, the genre has struggled commercially. “King Arthur” was a domestic disappointment when it bowed with just $15.2 million last June, and “Alexander” bombed in the U.S. with a total run of just $34 million. (The Oliver Stone pic fared better overseas with $133 million in receipts.)

“Heaven,” which tracking shows is generating the most interest from men over 25, is expected to open somewhere between the debuts for “Gladiator” and “Arthur.”

“Wax” is tracking similarly to recent remake “The Amityville Horror,” which opened four weeks ago to $23.5 million. Tracking on “Wax” is strongest among young women, continuing the trend of femmes fueling the frightener biz.

“Crash” is the feature helming debut from Paul Haggis, who penned “Million Dollar Baby.” Pic, which Haggis also wrote, features an ensemble of big-name stars including Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon and Brendan Fraser.

Rather than give the film a platform release, Lions Gate is hoping to capitalize on positive reviews with a large national opening.

Among the limited openers, MGM’s Martin Short laffer “Jiminy Glick in La La Wood,” a farce set at the Toronto Film Festival, bows on 24 screens. IFC Films is starting “Brothers” on two Gotham screens.

In Seattle, Miramax is bowing “Twin Sister” in a solo engagement. In Gotham, solo starters include “Tartan’s “Mysterious Skin,” Zeitgeist’s “Writer of O” and First Run’s “Le Grand Role.”

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