'Blue,' 'Serenity,' 'Game,' 'Violence' opening wide

Hoping to continue the fall season’s strong start at the box office, four wide releases reach the market this weekend.

Sony is bowing “Into the Blue” (which it inherited from MGM) at 2,789 theaters, while Universal introduces “Serenity,” the Joss Whedon-helmed continuation of his short-lived “Firefly” TV series, in 2,188 and Disney opens historical golf drama “The Greatest Game Ever Played” at 1,014.

Also this weekend, New Line expands “A History of Violence” into 1,340 theaters after one week’s play on 14 screens.

Other expansions this frame include Sony’s Roman Polanski-helmed “Oliver Twist” to 779 after it unspooled on five screens last week.

The fall season, which opened the Tuesday after Labor Day, has started strong on the backs of Disney’s “Flightplan,” Warner Bros.’ “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” and DreamWorks’ “Just Like Heaven.” Through last weekend, fall grosses were running 16% ahead of where they were in 2004, $335 million vs. $288 million.

After a struggling summer at the box office, 2005′s receipts are still trailing last year by 6%, but the strong start for fall is giving studio execs hope that a robust slate of product through the season and into the holidays will narrow that gap before year’s end.

“My hope is that it’s another great weekend,” said Universal distrib prexy Nikki Rocco.

While none of the new wide releases is expected to get beyond $20 million for the frame, industry observers say “Into the Blue,” “Serenity” and the second week of “Flightplan” all have a shot at claiming this weekend’s box office crown.

“Into the Blue,” the underwater treasure pic starring Jessica Alba and Paul Walker, has been tracking the strongest with auds younger than 25; interest appears balanced between males and females.

“Flightplan,” which has posted strong midweek grosses of around $1.5 million per day, shouldn’t feel too much of an effect, as it has been skewing a bit older.

But there will be some overlap between “Blue” and “Serenity,” which is looking to draw on the fanbase fostered by “Firefly.” U has been courting for months the organized fan groups, who call themselves Browncoats, with promotional screenings and other outreach.

It’s not clear how large a gross those fans can produce — there were not enough “Firefly” fans to keep Fox from canceling the show, but a subsequent DVD of those first 14 episodes was a huge homevid seller. The “Serenity” launch has an air of uncertainty.

“This was an unusual campaign because we went underground,” Rocco said. “They were given the entree of being the first to see the film.”

The David Cronenberg-helmed crime drama “History of Violence,” starring Viggo Mortensen, averaged a strong $36,856 per screen when it bowed last weekend. So far, pic is attracting the strongest interest from men over age 25 — also “Serenity’s” strongest quadrant.

Disney has more modest aspirations for “Greatest Game.”

Distrib prexy Chuck Viane said he expected the film, which recounts the 1913 U.S. Open golf tournament, to need some nurturing and plans to expand it in coming weeks.

“We think we have a movie that’s exceptional. We’re trying to do this by word of mouth. Next weekend, we’ll step up the print count,” he said.

In the limited arena, Miramax will expand “Proof” again, upping its run to 240 screens. New titles for the frame include DreamWorks’ Julianne Moore starrer “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” which will unspool on 41 screens.

Sony Pictures Classics will start biopic “Capote,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, on 12 screens in Gotham and L.A.

Other new titles include “Mirrormask,” from Destination and Samuel Goldwyn, bowing at 18 venues, and Rainbow’s “Going Shopping,” beginning on six in L.A. and Gotham.

Vitagraph and Capital are going to launch “40 Shades of Blue” on three in Gotham and Memphis.

Starting just in Gotham this weekend are Fox’s “Little Manhattan” and Magnolia’s “The War Within.”

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