U's new competish includes 'Carter,' 'Elektra'

Having held the top spot for three weeks and amassed more than $210 million amid light competition, Universal’s “Meet the Fockers” will face off over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend against a host of contenders, including three wide releases and two national expansions.

Opening are 20th Century Fox’s Jennifer Garner comicbook adaptation “Elektra,” in 3,203 theaters; Warners’ talking-animal kidpic “Racing Stripes,” on 3,185; and Paramount’s Samuel L. Jackson inner-city school drama “Coach Carter,” on 2,524.

Making their national debuts after some solid limited play are U’s “In Good Company,” which widens to 1,565 engagements, and Sony Pictures Classics’ Zhang Yimou martial arts romancer “House of Flying Daggers,” expanding to about 1,190.

Warner Bros. also is expanding “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera” to 907 screens before its national break Jan. 21.

The combo of numerous new entrants and the holiday span makes predictions difficult this weekend, with no picture emerging as a clear frontrunner.

“White Noise” also should be a factor in the marketplace, even if it takes the steep second-week drop typical of horror pics.

Horse race

All told, seven films have a good shot at grossing eight figures over the four-day frame.

“This weekend is a mystery,” Fox distrib chief Bruce Snyder said. “I’m kind of throwing up my arms and saying, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Fox’s “Elektra” is taking the largest run of the new films, but it will get strong competition from “Coach Carter” and “Racing Stripes.” “Carter” has been tracking strong with people under 25, while “Stripes” is difficult to fully measure because much of its aud will be kids, who are not always well represented by the tracking services.

Jackson is one of those actors with numerous blockbusters to his credit, but many are franchise titles (“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace”) or ensemble efforts (“SWAT”). Among films he’s toplined, Par’s adaptation of “Shaft” opened to $21.7 million in June 2000; “Changing Lanes,” co-starring Ben Affleck, bowed with $17.1 million in March 2002.

Animal attraction?

“Stripes” meanwhile is hoping to duplicate the success of Warners’ “Kangaroo Jack,” which made a surprising $16.6 debut over the King weekend in 2003. “Hopefully we’re going to have similar results,” Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman said.

Over the past decade, the holiday has become a stronger play period. In 1997, for instance, the overall four-day gross was $101.5 million. In 2003, when “Kangaroo Jack” opened, the total grosses had jumped to $151 million. Last year, “Along Came Polly” started strong with a $32.5 million opening, but overall grosses sank to $138 million.

With many schools and businesses closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Sunday and Monday grosses should get a boost.

Also opening this weekend are Geneon’s “Appleseed,” on 31 screens in seven cities, and Miramax’s “The Chorus,” on two screens in Gotham and L.A.

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