Universal downplays expectations for 'Charlie'

Disney sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” could see a closer race than expected with holdover “I Am Legend” for the weekend box office crown, while Universal is downplaying expectations for Mike Nichols’ Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

That won’t be the only unwrapping going on at the B.O. as a flurry of films enter the holiday market, including DreamWorks-Paramount’s Johnny Depp musical “Sweeney Todd,” Warner Bros.’ Hilary Swank-Gerard Butler romancer “P.S. I Love You” and Sony’s biopic spoof “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

A second wave of titles hit theaters on Christmas Day, including MGM’s “The Great Debaters,” directed by and starring Denzel Washington, 20th Century Fox’s “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” and Sony and Walden’s family fantasy “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.” Also, Warners opens Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman starrer “The Bucket List” in limited engagements. And on Dec. 26, Paramount Vantage unspools Daniel Day-Lewis starrer “There Will Be Blood” in Gotham and L.A.

“Treasure” should easily lead the pack of new entrants this weekend, but tracking puts the film within range of “I Am Legend,” which scored the best December opening ever last weekend at $76.5 million.

“Legend,” starring Will Smith, heads into its second frame packing plenty of punch. Film rang up an additional $20 million through Wednesday for a cume of $97.2 million, according to Rentrak.

Playing in 3,832 theaters, “Book of Secrets” reteams “Treasure” director Jon Turteltaub with the original cast, topped by Nicolas Cage; Helen Mirren is joining the franchise.

The original film opened to $35.1 million over Thanksgiving 2004 on its way to grossing a robust $173 million domestically.

The No. 3 spot for the weekend could go to 20th Century Fox holdover “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Like “I Am Legend,” “Alvin” surpassed expectations in its opening last weekend, taking $44.3 million.

“Alvin” heads into its second sesh with a cume of $52.2 million through Wednesday.

After that, it could be a horse race. And with so many films opening, studio distribs wonder just how much there is to go around. At the same time, the extended Christmas-New Year’s frame is prime time for moviegoing.

Tracking suggests that “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2,574 theaters), “P.S. I Love You” (2,454) and “Sweeney Todd” (1,249) are relatively closely clustered in terms of box office potential, falling in the $8 million-$12 million range.

“Walk Hard” (2,650), directed by Jake Kasdan and starring John C. Reilly, follows the escapades of an over-the-top musical star. Kasdan co-wrote it with Judd Apatow.

All about expectations

In terms of managing expectations, Universal is looking for “Charlie Wilson’s War” to open in the same range as Matt Damon-Robert De Niro spy thriller “The Good Shepherd,” which debuted at $9.9 million on the same weekend last year.

Film, penned by Aaron Sorkin and also starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, could be perceived as having the sort of political overtones that auds have resoundingly rejected this fall, no matter the star, although “Charlie Wilson’s War” is much breezier.

It’s based on the real-life story of U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, who teamed up with a rogue CIA officer and right-wing Texas socialite to provide U.S. assistance to help the Afghan and Arab resistance during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

U decided to go wide with “Charlie Wilson’s War” vs. a limited release because of the cast and expects the film to have steady and strong legs. Pic runs just over 90 minutes.

‘Sweeney’ biz

Tim Burton’s R-rated “Sweeney Todd,” the bigscreen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, is tracking strongly among teen girls and young women, a coveted demo that appears to be drawn both to Depp and the film’s macabre storyline.

Even if the musical does roughly the same amount of B.O. biz as the competish, it could claim greater victory because it is playing fewer screens.

“Sweeney Todd,” also starring Helena Bonham Carter, is a DreamWorks-Warner Bros. co-production. Par is distribbing domestically, Warners overseas.

Directed by Richard LaGravenese, “I Love You” is looking to provide counterprogramming. Move could pay off, with tracking showing an uptick in interest in recent days.

O’seas options

On the foreign front, the pre-Christmas frame should be plenty competitive with “The Golden Compass,” “I Am Legend,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Treasure” all looking to generate significant offshore coin.

“Compass,” which has led the past two frames, continues to show far more traction overseas than domestically as it’s crossed the $100 million mark, led by $26.7 million in the U.K. The fantasy expands into Brazil, Hong Kong and South Korea, where it launched impressively Wednesday with $3.5 million.

“Legend” is making its first foray into Europe via openings in Benelux, France and Switzerland following a solid start in eight Asian markets last weekend. Foreign cume’s already hit $29 million as of Wednesday.

“Alvin” hits Mexico, South Korea, Spain and the U.K. after a small launch last frame in 10 markets. Studio saw impressive foreign numbers from tapping a similar vein via its two “Garfield” pics with a combined $235 million offshore.

Disney’s going day-and-date with “Treasure” in Australia, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Spain. Three years ago, the original’s overseas cume slightly topped the domestic gross at $174 million.

Studio is also expanding “Enchanted,” which has cumed $58 million early in its foreign run, into Germany and Scandinavia. Par’s opening “Bee Movie,” now at $64 million overseas, in Italy, and U’s launching “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” in Germany.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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