Disney fantasy tries on 'Rings'

Will “Narnia” rake in “Rings”-like B.O.?

With Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Hollywood is hoping for a “Lord of the Rings” size opening that will launch a final four frames of 2005 that could erase much of the year’s 6% B.O. deficit.

Opening on 3,616 screens, the Disney/Walden adaptation is tracking strongly in all demos, leading to expectations of a bow that could easily exceed $50 million.

Its only new competition is WB’s “Syriana,” which is going after a smaller adult aud.

Sony is bowing “Memoirs of a Geisha” on eight plays in Gotham, L.A., San Francisco and Toronto, before kicking it up next week and taking it wide over Christmas.

“Narnia” will undoubtedly beat the record for second frame after Thanksgiving, previously held by “Ocean’s Twelve,” which bowed to $39 million.

The bigger question is how it will compare with the biggest December openings. Current No. 1 is “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which made $73 million in its first Friday to Sunday frame in 2003, followed by predecessors “The Two Towers” with $62 million and “Fellowship of the Ring,” with $47 million. All three pics bowed on Wednesday the week before Christmas, the same day “King Kong” is taking this year.

“We’re across the board with tremendous interest,” Disney distrib prexy Chuck Vianne said. “The only thing we have to worry about is that there are some snowstorms afoot.”

Beyond the usual tentpole crowds, Mouse House will get the additional benefit of sizable group sales to churches and schools.

As part of a marketing campaign that aggressively courted Christians drawn to the story’s Bible metaphors, some theaters opened early for specially booked church groups Thursday night.

Disney-owned El Capitan has already booked groups through mid-January.

BVI is opening the pic in 13 territories this weekend with key bows in the U.K., Germany, Spain and Mexico. Other markets include Austria, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Portugal, German-speaking Switzerland and Venezuela. 

After giving a wide berth to “King Kong,” which opens day and date worldwide on Dec. 14, “Narnia” will complete overseas launch during Christmas weekend with openings in most other markets including Australia, France and Italy. It will hold off on Japan until March.

After two weeks of spectacular grosses in New York and L.A., Warner is looking for a distant but solid second place performance out of “Syriana” as it expands to 1,752 playdates.

Playing just five theaters Thanksgiving weekend and nine in its second frame, the political thriller has made nearly $1.5 million, with the second highest per screen average of the year in its debut.

WB distrib prexy Dan Fellman said he’s confident pic will have strong appeal in smaller markets after seeing it do well in Sherman Oaks and Pasadena, Calif., which tend to mirror perfs in smaller cities around the country.

Pic is tracking to a mostly adult aud, with some greater appeal among women thanks to George Clooney.

Studio is undoubtedly looking for an opening in the high teens, with a possibility of the low 20s.

Season’s other adult drama, “Walk the Line,” has done nearly $70 million in three frames after opening against “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” That’s a good omen for “Syriana” as it counter-programs another tentpole that will suck families.

In January 2001, “Traffic,” another political thriller written by “Syriana” scribe-helmer Stephen Gaghan, bowed to $15.5 million on 1,510 screens after a solid week in limited.

Pic won’t hit foreign markets until next year.

As for “Geisha,” its bigger market this frame is in Japan, where BVI and Spyglass are opening it wide on 250-plus screens as counterprogramming to the fourth “Harry Potter,” which grossed $30.5 million at 900 playdates in its first nine days. Foreign rights on “Geisha” are split among an array of distribs.

Two years ago, Japanese audiences sparked to another American-made feature, “The Last Samurai,” with Japan’s cume topping $90 million.

“Goblet” is already the second-largest foreign grosser this year, having eclipsed “War of the Worlds” at $354 million. Rivals expect the fourth Potter pic will also pass the top 2005 foreign performer, “Star Wars: Episode 3 — Revenge of the Sith” at $468 million. 

Two other pics looking for kudos notice open on the coasts this weekend.

Focus is bowing cowboy pic “Brokeback Mountain” on five plays in New York, L.A. and San Francisco, while Weinstein Co.’s Brit comedy “Mrs. Henderson Presents” debuts on six screens in Gotham and L.A.

Magnolia’s Anthony Hopkins starrer “The World’s Fastest Indian” bows with three playdates in L.A. and New York.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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