Is United Artists a lion or a lamb?

Reinvented label has its screen test

Tom Cruise is one of the world’s top box office stars, with his long list of commercial titles grossing $2.8 billion domestically. With today’s bow of political drama “Lions for Lambs” in 2,215 theaters, he’s asking moviegoers to accept a new, more meek Cruise who’s less about box office roar than about creative effort.

Film, the first release from Cruise and Paula Wagner’s reinvented United Artists label, couldn’t tout a more high-profile pedigree: It was directed by Robert Redford, who also stars alongside Cruise and Meryl Streep.

But in tone and storyline, “Lions” is far more akin to a specialty title, hence, expectations are that the movie likely won’t open to more than $10 million. The last wide release starring Cruise to open in that B.O. neighborhood was “Far and Away” in 1992.

UA faces a daunting challenge in managing expectations and trying to educate the public and consumer press that box office grosses aren’t what United Artists is about; rather, Cruise and Wagner want to continue the company’s legacy of nurturing talent and creativity. Still, “Lions” comes at a tricky time, with auds thus far largely rejecting a string of films that, like it, address the issue of current wars and failed U.S. policy.

Thus far, these pics have had a tough time finding an aud, although it appears “Lions” will do better than New Line’s “Rendition,” which bowed to only $4 million from 2,250 runs last month.

UA is a subsid of MGM, which will distribute all of its titles, including “Lions.” MGM brokered the deal for Cruise and Wagner to revive UA after their very public break with Paramount, where Cruise and Wagner had a production deal for 14 years. Sumner Redstone caught Cruise off-guard when he told the press that he had no interest in reupping the pact with Cruise and Wagner, the actor’s longtime producing partner.

“Lions” cost $35 million to produce. UA is confident that the film will do OK financially once it finishes both its domestic and international runs.

Wagner and Cruise’s shop isn’t the only one managing expectations and dealing with issues of changing identity.

Also this weekend, Warner Bros. opens family holiday title “Fred Claus,” which reteams Vince Vaughn with “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin. It’s the first PG-rated film in which Vaughn has starred, causing confusion as to just how family-friendly “Fred Claus” is or isn’t.

Debuting on the specialty side is Ethan and Joel Coen’s critically acclaimed “No Country for Old Men,” which Miramax opens in 28 theaters in Gotham, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Stylized crime drama, set in vast rural Texas, stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Kelly Macdonald.

Frame’s only other wide opener is horror entry “P2,” the first release from the new distribution division at Summit Entertainment that’s led by Rob Friedman. Pic unspools in 2,131 locales. Summit has limited expectations for the film, which was heavily pre-sold overseas.

Tracking suggests that the new players could have a hard time overtaking Universal holdover “American Gangster,” which heads into its second frame. Directed by Ridley Scott, the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe starrer opened at $43.6 million, grossing $53.6 million through Wednesday, according to Rentrak.

DreamWorks Animation’s “Bee Movie” could also have plenty of sting left in its second frame. Starring the voices of Jerry Seinfeld and Renee Zellweger, toon opened at $38 million, with a cume of $42.8 million through Wednesday.

“Fred Claus,” in which Vaughn plays Santa’s derelict brother, also stars Paul Giamatti and Rachel Weisz. The holiday title will compete with “Gangster” and “Bee” for one of the top spots. Warners is looking for the film to do about $20 million.

“Claus” and “Bee” are likely to benefit from a stronger-than-usual Sunday, since nearly half of the kids will be out of school on Monday because of the Veterans Day holiday.

On the specialty side, the frame will also see the limited releases of the Bollywood title “Saawariya,” which Sony releases in 85 theaters, and the Indian film “Om Shanti Om,” which Eros unspools in 114.

ThinkFilm opens the docu “War Dance,” about a refugee camp in Uganda, in three theaters in L.A. and Gotham.

After Dark’s “Horrorfest 2” is opening in 323.

Warner Independent expands “Darfur Now” from three to 24 runs.

On the foreign front, “Lions for Lambs” will probably dominate as Fox goes day-and-date in most major international markets with launches in Australia, Germany, Mexico, Scandinavia, South Korea, Spain and the U.K.

Studio’s sending “Lions” into 2,642 playdates offshore.

Fox’s strategy is grounded in taking advantage of Cruise’s worldwide recognizability and drawing power — underlined two years ago when “Mission: Impossible III” managed to draw $264 million internationally, double its domestic cume.

Still, it’s not a slam dunk for “Lions” in foreign multiplexes given its subject matter of conflict in the Middle East. Universal’s “The Kingdom” hasn’t shown much traction, taking in only $26 million outside the U.S. midway through its foreign run.

Disney’s “Ratatouille,” which has won five straight frames internationally, will remain a power this weekend. Its foreign cume’s nearing $380 million.

Paramount’s expanding “The Heartbreak Kid” into Brazil, Italy and Sweden. Laffer’s performing slightly better in foreign markets than it did domestically with more than $32 million midway through its international rollout.

U takes “The Bourne Ultimatum” into Japan, its final foreign market, and should see the spy thriller cross the $200 million mark in international cume.

Other launches include “Atonement” in Germany, “Bee Movie” in Malaysia and Singapore, “Into the Wild” in the U.K., “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” in Spain and “Disturbia” in Japan.

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