Studios overload holiday box office

In a frame that could prove the wildest in over a decade, Christmas weekend features five new pics in wide release, two expanding wide and five new limited release films.

Three films opened Wednesday, four hit theaters today and another five bow or go wide Sunday.

Going into the four-day weekend, nobody expects a typical frame. Not only is the market extremely crowded, but with Christmas falling on Sunday, theaters are expected to be largely empty Saturday. As a result, four-day numbers will likely resemble a three-day frame.

Christmas hasn’t fallen on a Sunday since 1994, leaving many studios struggling to figure out how their pics will perform.

“In essence, there’s no research on it,” noted Fox distrib topper Bruce Snyder. “I don’t think anybody has a true picture of what will happen.”

Among the new films in wide release: Johnny Knoxville starrer “The Ringer,” from Fox Searchlight; WB adult comedy “Rumor Has It”; and Dimension horror pic “Wolf Creek.”

A number of pics with Oscar hopes bow in limited: Steven Spielberg’s political thriller “Munich” from Universal; Disney romantic comedy “Casanova”; and Terrence Malick’s historical epic “The New World” from New Line.

Despite all that, competition for the top spot is expected to come from two holdovers: “King Kong” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which were in a virtual dead heat Wednesday (see chart, page 14).

“Dick and Jane” and “Cheaper,” which bowed Wednesday, will most likely compete for No. 3.

Former pic is part of a push by Sony to end a weak 2005 on a positive note. Also part of the drive: “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which expands today to 1,547 theaters. Pic has done extremely well in limited, grossing nearly $700,000 its first weekend in eight theaters and $1.3 million its second in 52. Going wide will be a tougher shift, however, as its main appeal is to adult women.

Also in the mix will be “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which should get a boost from school holidays. Pic has grossed $255.5 million domestic and has passed “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” as the top foreign grosser of the year at $470 million.

Today’s other wide release is “The Ringer,” which hits 1,829 playdates. Fox Searchlight likely has modest hopes for the Special Olympics-themed comedy among teen auds.

Two limited pics with big buzz could prove competitive with wide releases. Universal debuts Steven Spielberg’s controversial “Munich” in 532 theaters. With solid appeal among adult auds, especially males, drama about Israel’s response to the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics could gross mid to high single-digit millions.

Pic is skedded to go wide on around 1,800 screens on Jan. 6.

Aiming for the same range is Focus Features’ spectacular performer “Brokeback Mountain.” After grossing more than $500,000 its first weekend on five plays and $2.5 million its second on 69, gay cowboy drama hits 217 theaters this weekend. Focus upped the print count in the past few days to build on buzz for what has quickly become a cultural phenomenon.

Most new theaters are in pic’s existing 27 markets. “Brokeback” debuts this weekend in Hartford and New Haven, Conn.; West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Fla.; Boulder, Colo.; and, in the first run for the state in which it’s set, Jackson Hole, Wyo. In Canada, it hits Calgary, Halifax, Ottawa and Edmonton for the first time.

Sunday’s biggest bow is “Rumor Has It.” Jennifer Aniston starrer will hit 2,815 playdates on Christmas Day. It’s going after a primarily adult female aud, similar to that of “Geisha.”

Dimension’s “Wolf Creek,” meanwhile, is targeting the same teen aud as “Ringer.” Well-reviewed pic bows in 1,749 theaters Sunday. It has been a mixed year for horror pics, with “Saw 2″ and “The Ring 2″ scaring up big bucks, while “Dark Water” and “Alone in the Dark” flopped.

Universal takes “The Producers” wide to a conservative count of just 975 playdates Sunday. Pic grossed a solid $155,000 in six theaters last weekend.

Disney bows Heath Ledger starrer “Casanova” on 36 runs in 14 markets. Pic goes wide on around 1,000 playdates Jan. 6.

Christmas Day’s other high-profile limited release is “The New World,” which hits two theaters in L.A. and one in Gotham. New Line will play the 149-minute version critics have seen for limited auds, but Malick is cutting 15-20 minutes for pic’s planned wide release Jan. 20 (Daily Variety, Dec. 21).

Also in limited, Sony Pictures Classics bowed Merchant Ivory historical romance “The White Countess” on 10 plays Wednesday and opens French thriller “Hidden” (Cache) in four theaters Friday.

O’seas showdowns

UIP’s “Kong” has continued to generate solid but not spectacular numbers in foreign markets, with weekday grosses hitting about $10 million each day to lift the offshore cume past $113 million as of Wednesday in 55 markets. It’s the 21st pic to cross the nine-figure milestone in international grosses this year at about $470 million.

“Kong” enters its crucial second weekend overseas. So far, top grosses have come from the U.K. with $18 million, France with $11 million and Germany with $7.9 million.

The ape has seen tough competition in two markets — in Japan, where it’s trailed the fourth week of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and local entry “Otoko-Tachi No Yamato”; and in Italy, where it’s trailing local holiday comedies “Natale a Miami” and “Ti amo in tutte le lingue del mondo.” “Kong” has grossed $3.8 million in Japan and $3.07 million in Italy.

Southeast Asia markets have generated socko biz with $3.6 million in Taiwan, $1.9 million in Thailand and $1.6 million each in Malaysia and Singapore.

“The weekend will be tough except in Asia, but we’re looking forward to an excellent week once we get to Monday,” UIP prexy Andrew Cripps said of the holiday frame.

BVI is expanding “Narnia” into 13 additional markets this weekend, doubling the territory list to 26 and the playdate count to 6,400. It reported impressive launches Wednesday with $2.6 million at 908 playdates in France and $159,000 at 130 in Belgium –BVI opening-day records for those markets. The French figure more than doubled the launch-day gross for “Kong.”

“Narnia,” which has cumed $91 million offshore after two weeks, moves into Russia today and Australia on Monday.

BVI’s going up against “Kong” in Japan with “Chicken Little.” “Narnia” won’t open in Japan until March.

Also overseas, Warners is opening “Rumor Has It” in Austria, Germany and Italy. Fox is going with “Cheaper by the Dozen 2″ in Australia, Mexico, South Korea, Spain and the U.K., and Sony bows “Fun With Dick and Jane” in Japan and Australia while launching “Memoirs of a Geisha” in Sweden. Sony is opening “The Producers” in the U.K on Monday.

“Brokeback Mountain,” which has a wide array of foreign distribs, opens Sunday in Denmark, followed by the U.K. on Jan. 6. It launches in mid-January in France, Hong Kong, Italy, Spain and Taiwan.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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