Man vs. machines

'Passion' to take on Willis, 'Robots'

Machines should mean maximum moolah this weekend at the nation’s multiplexes: Fox’s CGI toon “Robots” is opening at a saturation-level 3,776 engagements and looks poised to emulate the studio’s success with “Ice Age” during the same frame three years ago.

Overall business could be solid thanks to Miramax’s opening of Bruce Willis actioner “Hostage” at 2,123 playdates, Newmarket’s launch of “The Passion Recut” at 952 and significant holdover performances by Disney and Spyglass’ “The Pacifier” and MGM’s “Be Cool.”

But prospects appear brightest for “Robots” due partly to its Blue Sky pedigree. The same shingle produced the toon “Ice Age,” which set a record for a March opening with a surprisingly strong $46.3 million on its way to $176 million domestically.

Fox’s extensive marketing push for “Robots” has stressed the star power of Robin Williams, Halle Berry and Mel Brooks and placed the emphasis on the pic’s slapstick comedy, opting for an approach similar to that for DreamWorks’ successful launch of “Shark Tale” in the fall. Fox also is likely to attract customers this weekend via its strategy of attaching the trailer for “Star Wars: Episode III — The Revenge of the Sith,” featuring “Robots” star Ewan McGregor.

“Robots” may not be able to match the heights scaled by “Ice Age,” however, since it will compete for the same family audience as the soph sesh of “Pacifier,” which opened with a stronger-than-expected $30.6 million. “Robots” will be playing at 58 Imax locations and on 60 digital screens.

“Hostage,” with Willis portraying a retired hostage negotiator, carries an R rating and is aimed squarely at the adult male audience. Miramax is hoping for returns in line with those of Fox’s “Man on Fire” last spring. That pic launched with $22 million and grossed $77 million by the end of its run.

“Hostage” is likely to compete for viewers with “Be Cool,” which posted a solid $23.5 million launch last weekend.

‘Passion’ puzzle

“The Passion Recut,” a slightly trimmed version of last year’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” is the biggest unknown in the marketplace. Plans to launch the unrated pic, from which director Mel Gibson has removed some of the more violent shots, coalesced earlier this year as part of a plan to return it to theaters during the Easter season.

“Mel wanted to make changes in response to the fact that some people were squeamish about seeing it last year,” Newmarket prexy Bob Berney said. “As big as it was, there were a lot of people who didn’t go for that reason.”

The Regal and Cinemark chains haven’t booked the new version, partly because it does not carry a rating. Gibson’s Icon Prods. decided to release the “The Passion Recut” unrated after being informed in January by the Motion Picture Assn. of America that the film was still too intense to receive the PG-13 Gibson wanted.

It’s difficult to forecast how many moviegoers will want to see the newer version given that last year’s grossed $370 million domestically and the DVD has been out since August.

“We always thought that this would be something that would become an annual event,” Berney noted.

New Line is platforming relationship comedy/drama “The Upside of Anger,” starring Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, at nine playdates.

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