Boffo box office expected for 'Dead Man's Chest'

With absolutely huge tracking numbers for Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” — more than 50% of those polled in one survey said it’s their first choice pic to see this weekend — a monster opening is expected from the sequel when it bows today at an ultrawide 4,133 locations.

Based on the massive interest from all audience quadrants, rival studio execs say “Dead Man’s Chest,” starring Johnny Depp and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, has a good shot of breaking the current three-day box office record held by Sony’s “Spider-Man,” which took in $114.8 million in May 2002.

But Disney is staying mum on how big it thinks “Pirates” will be. “I have no idea. I am not even going to fathom a guess,” Mouse House distrib topper Chuck Viane said. “No matter how you answer that question, it can come back to hurt you.”

Still, the studio has made a huge bet on the surprise franchise, plunking down over $350 million to shoot “Dead Man’s Chest” back-to-back with a second sequel, “At the End of the World,” currently skedded for release over Memorial Day weekend next year.

Other studios, meanwhile, are expecting “Pirates,” the only new wide-release pic this week, to plunder the competition. Both Warner tentpole “Superman Returns” and Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada” could find their auds distracted by the Mouse House’s buccaneers.

Warners distrib chief Dan Fellman said, “We expect to take a substantial drop because of the holiday, but after that, we’re going to level off.” Warners moved up “Superman” to a Wednesday bow last week in part to maximize grosses before “Pirates” sailed in.

“The premiere weekend of the summer (to release a movie) without a doubt was the Fourth of July. We’ll probably have $115 million before they open, and that’s a good jump start in any situation,” Fellman added.

Fox distrib chief Bruce Snyder said his surprise hit was bracing for “Pirates” as well. “Maybe not as much on ‘Prada,’ but I think it’ll have an enormous effect on everything,” he said. Meryl Streep laffer played to an aud more than two-thirds female in its opening weekend, but with strong word of mouth, Fox is hoping that the pic broadens out to more adult men.

On Wednesday, “Prada” picked up $4.1 million, padding cume to $44 million, second only to “Superman Returns,” which grossed $6.4 million for the day, bringing its cume to $114.5 million.

Early signs are showing a huge demand for “Pirates” tickets. Viane said nearly every show at the Disney-owned El Capitan Theater in Hollywood is sold out through the weekend; late Thursday, the only three shows with seats still available were the 3 and 6:30 a.m. shows Friday and Sunday’s 11:20 p.m. showing.

Viane said he expects at least 1,000 theaters to have midnight screenings on Thursday night, but added the number could be double that after theaters report their grosses.

Online ticket sellers Fandango and Movietickets.com both reported that pre-sales of “Pirates” tickets are moving at double the rate for “Superman Returns” last week. At Movietickets.com, “Pirates” had become the biggest pre-seller of the year, passing “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which earned $45.1 million on its opening Friday.

Anecdotally, Viane said exhibs are reporting similar experiences. “My grapevine is saying wow. They say people are already asking for tickets for shows on Saturday and Sunday. There seems to be this unbelievable pent-up demand.”

Overseas, Disney will avoid pitting “Pirates” against Sunday’s World Cup championship match, holding the pic back from the most soccer-obsessed territories. Only seven markets are opening day-and-date, including Australia and South Korea.

Buena Vista Intl. won’t officially report numbers until Sunday, but rival distribs estimate Thursday’s opening-day biz in Australia at a socko $1.95 million from 270 playdates. That performance that could lead to the biggest launch weekend in Australia since “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” opened with $10.4 million last year.

In 2003, before Disney released “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the theme park ride-based pic was largely an afterthought on the summer sked scattered with the more anticipated tentpoles “Finding Nemo,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “X2: X-Men United.”

After opening at $47 million, the first “Pirates” cumed a leggy $305 million — the third biggest gross of the year.

The first seven international markets where “Dead Man’s Chest” will bow are Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.K. and Uruguay. “Pirates” will go head-to-head with “Superman Returns” in all those markets except the U.K. and Uruguay.

Then, next weekend, it opens in Holland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, Scandinavia and Singapore. On the weekend of July 21, it goes into Brazil, Mexico and Japan and then launches in Germany on July 28, followed by France on the next weekend.

Warner has also opted to wait for the World Cup to end before opening “Superman Returns” in most markets. So far, though, the Man of Steel has performed solidly, with $24.4 million as of Tuesday from 11 markets. It opens this weekend in Hungary and South Africa and then next weekend in Brazil, France, Mexico and the U.K..

A pair of family-friendly CGI toons — BVI’s “Cars” and UIP’s “Over the Hedge” — are expanding this weekend. “Cars,” which hit $50 million internationally from 30 markets as of Wednesday, moves into Belgium and Spain this weekend; “Over the Hedge,” which has topped $40 million overseas, expands into Australia, Brazil, France, Germany and Japan.

UIP’s “Mission: Impossible III” opens in Japan this weekend after grossing more than $206 million internationally from every market except Japan and China. Its top foreign numbers have come from South Korea, with $37.6 million, and the U.K., with $29 million.

Warner also announced Thursday that Imax showings of “Superman Returns” had set records for opening week, with $6.83 million at 76 screens, and seven-day per-screen average at $89,804. Pic, which also opened at 11 Imax sites internationally, will add 24 for a total of 111, setting the record for the widest Hollywood release in Imax history. The previous record was 87 Imax theaters worldwide for “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Even the specialty market seems to be paying heed to “Pirates.” Among the handful of openings are Warner Independent’s “A Scanner Darkly,” which starts on 17 screens and in exclusive Gotham bookings, as well as Miramax’s “Once in a Lifetime” and Palm’s “Kill Your Idols.”

Among the few expansions, ThinkFilm will widen “Strangers With Candy” to 21 bookings after opening on two screens last weekend. And IFC will pad “Wordplay” by 31 screens, bringing its run to 125.

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