Paramount film set for 740 3-D screens

In the widest domestic rollout of a digital 3-D film to date, Paramount will unspool Robert Zemeckis’ big-budget “Beowulf” on roughly 740 3-D screens as it opens the violent animated epic in a total of 3,164 theaters this weekend. Film began playing in some locations Thursday evening.

“Beowulf,” drawn from the 9th century epic poem, is also receiving an aggressive foreign day-and-date release.

Hollywood studios are investing heavily in 3-D releases, although there are still a limited number of screens equipped with the necessary technology. That means a movie like “Beowulf” will still play mostly on traditional 2-D screens.

The weekend’s other wide release is Fox Walden’s G-rated family fantasy title “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” starring Natalie Portman, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman. Pic was written and helmed by “Stranger Than Fiction” scribe Zach Helm, who makes his feature directorial debut.

New Line opens Mike Newell’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” in 852 theaters. Based on the acclaimed book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and adapted by Ronald Harwood, film toplines Javier Bardem.

Forecasters say “Beowulf,” which cost $150 million to produce, has a strong shot at the weekend crown, placing the box office haul at $20 million-$25 million.

Steve Bing’s Shangri-La Entertainment put up roughly $100 million of the film’s budget, with Par making up the difference. Warner Bros. is a distribution partner on the film and is releasing it internationally.

While “Beowulf” is the biggest test yet of digital 3-D, the first movies that will truly live or die on this technology are James Cameron’s “Avatar” and DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens,” both of which bow in 2009, when there should be many more 3-D screens.

“Beowulf,” rated PG-13, employs the same motion-capture technology Zemeckis used in making “The Polar Express.” Pic’s ensemble voice cast includes Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn.

While Par, Shangri-La and Warners are hoping to appeal to the same aud that made Warners’ “300″ a hit, they say “Beowulf” has to overcome a basic challenge: It’s an animated film meant for older auds, not kids.

To that end, they are leveraging the 3-D factor in selling the film. Of the 741 3-D screens it will play on, 84 will be Imax 3-D screens.

After “Beowulf,” holdovers “American Gangster” and family toon “Bee Movie” should be strong contenders as they enter their third frames, battling it out with “Wonder Emporium,” which tells the story of a magic toy shop left by the owner to his assistant.

“Cholera” isn’t expected to be a strong player.

“Bee Movie,” voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, pulled off a rare coup last weekend when it came in No. 1 in its second weekend after debuting one week earlier at No. 2, behind Universal’s “Gangster.” Through Wednesday, “Gangster,” toplining Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, had grossed $86.3 million domestically, while “Bee” had grossed $77.8 million, according to Rentrak.

Among limited releases, it will be another busy weekend at the domestic box office. Paramount Vantage opens Noah Baumbach’s Nicole Kidman-Jack Black-Jennifer Jason Leigh starrer “Margot at the Wedding” in two theaters in New York.

Samuel Goldwyn Films/IDP releases Richard Kelly’s long-gestating doomsdayer “Southland Tales” in 63 locations. Pic, whose cast includes Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, marks Kelly’s follow-up to cult hit “Donnie Darko.”

Magnolia debuts Brian De Palma’s brutal Iraq war drama “Redacted” in 14 theaters in key markets. Film, about a young Iraqi girl who is raped and killed by U.S. forces, won De Palma the Silver Lion directing award at the Venice Film Festival.

First Look Films opens Gregg Araki’s “Smiley Face” in one theater in Los Angeles. Regent debuts Icelandic film “Eleven Men Out” in one theater.

On the foreign front, “Beowulf” is poised to lead the pack, with Warner Bros. taking the fantasy actioner into Germany, Italy, South Korea, the U.K. and much of Southeast Asia.

International auds have a proven track record of responding to actioners out of the past. Warner saw significant success earlier this year when “300″ surprised with $245 million — 54% of its worldwide total of $456 million.

The biggest competition for the top foreign slot will come from U’s “American Gangster,” which launches in France, Germany and the U.K. after opening in a smattering of small markets during the past two weekends. First-day French grosses hit $530,000 on Wednesday.

Universal is also taking “The Bourne Ultimatum” into China, its final foreign market, with more than $193 million already banked overseas.

And it’s launching “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” in Australia and Russia to build on its $15.7 million foreign gross — already matching domestic perf — with $7.5 million from the U.K. and $5.7 million from Italy.

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