Witching hour

Laffer aims to work magic at B.O.

Can a witch beat the bat? Race for the B.O. crown is expected to be tight this weekend as “Bewitched,” which Sony bows at 3,174 theaters, attempts to dislodge Warner Bros.’ “Batman Begins” from the top of the chart.

Other new arrivals include Disney’s “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” which opened Wednesday with $2.7 million from 3,521 venues, and Universal zombie pic “George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead,” starting today at 2,249.

Like last summer’s Nicole Kidman pic “The Stepford Wives,” “Bewitched” has so far been attracting mostly femme interest. Industry estimates are for a bow near the $21.4 million with which “Wives” opened. At the time that was the biggest opening for a pic Kidman toplined before spring’s “The Interpreter” posted $22.8 million.

“Bewitched,” which is rated PG-13 and was produced on an $80 million budget, also stars Will Ferrell, who may lure a more male aud. Last summer, his “Anchorman” opened with $28.4 million, and earlier this year, the younger-skewing “Kicking & Screaming” bowed at $20.2 million.

After grossing $48.7 million during its opening three-day span, “Batman Begins” is also looking at a low- to mid-20s frame. In its opening, pic got a big boost from Father’s Day — Sunday’s $15.7 million take is the second-best day of its run. Absence of the holiday will probably mean a steeper-than-normal drop. A 50% decline would put the pic at around $24 million.

Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman said he’s confident the pic will stay on top since the new entrants are not aimed at the “Batman” core aud of older males.

“I’m looking forward to a strong weekend,” he said. “There are a lot of interesting family movies coming into the marketplace. But the word of mouth on our picture is great, and we’re in a very good position to take the weekend again.”

Disney distrib prexy Chuck Viane said the Wednesday numbers for “Herbie” were in line with his expectations. “We look at Wednesday and Thursday to build into the weekend,” he said.

Even in the summer, G-rated pics like “Herbie” tend to do much better on weekends, when parents are free to take tykes to theaters, so it’s too soon to say where the pic will end up. But given star Lindsay Lohan’s teen appeal, Disney hopes older kids turn out for “Herbie,” too.

“Freaky Friday,” which starred Lohan, also went out on a summer Wednesday, picking up $6 million its first day and going on to post $22.2 million over the three-day period.

Produced on a modest $15 million budget, R-rated “Land of the Dead” is sparking interest among the young-male zombie fans. Still, no one expects the pic to surpass the $26.7 million opening for last year’s Romero remake, “Dawn of the Dead.” Instead, an opening of about $10 million, akin to the bow of summer 2003 zombie hit “28 Days Later,” is expected.

“It’s perfect counterprogramming,” said U distrib chief Nikki Rocco. “We’re the choice for younger males this weekend.”

Box office bashers will likely get a new statistic to tout this weekend: longest streak of down weekends ever. Field of pics won’t likely top last year’s total of $129 million. Over the frame in 2004, “Fahrenheit 9/11” bowed with an unexpected $23.9 million followed by the $19.7 million opening for “White Chicks.” Five other films grossed more than $10 million during the frame.

If this weekend’s total comes in under 2004’s, it will be the 18th straight week, topping the 17-week record set in 1985.

In the limited arena, Lions Gate opens David LaChapelle’s krump doc “Rize” on 352 screens. Also opening is Eros’ “Paheli” (Puzzle) on 60.

In Gotham and L.A., Warner Independent Pictures bows doc “March of the Penguins” on four screens while Sony Pictures Classics starts “Yes” on seven.

ThinkFilm begins Lew Wasserman doc “The Last Mogul” on one screen in L.A. In Gotham, Samuel Goldwyn unspools “Lila Says” on two, while Rialto’s reissue of “Elevator to the Gallows” starts solo.

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