Metropolitan Opera headed to theaters

After a fall in which auds avoided movie theaters like so many Scrooges, Hollywood is counting on Warner Bros.’ Will Smith starrer “I Am Legend” and 20th Century Fox’s live-action/CGI hybrid “Alvin and the Chipmunks” to usher in a merry holiday season as they debut at the domestic box office this weekend.

And for those wanting to sing a different tune at the multiplex on Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera begins its second season simulcasting live performances in digital high-def to more than 300 commercial theaters across the U.S., as well as more than 100 theaters in Canada and roughly 200 abroad. Saturday’s opera is Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliette.”

“Legend” bows in 3,606 theaters. Pic marks the third time that Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 sci-fi tome has been adapted for the bigscreen after “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, and “The Omega Man,” toplining Charlton Heston.

Tracking suggests “Legend” could be one of the biggest openers of the fall, possibly crossing the $40 million mark. Francis Lawrence directed “Legend” from an adapted script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman.

“Alvin,” which opens in 3,475 theaters, brings to the bigscreen the trouble-causing singing chipmunks that began as a musical recording group before adaptation into a TV cartoon series. Pic, directed by Tim Hill, helmer of Fox’s “Garfield” franchise, stars Jason Lee. According to tracking, it could play more broadly than a typical family-friendly film and attract all age groups.

Except for a weekend or two, box office has been consistently running behind that of last fall. Expectations are that “Legend” and “Alvin” should result in a strong weekend for the B.O.

One wild card: A strong winter storm predicted for parts of the Northeast could have an impact on B.O., according to distrib execs.

On the limited side, new releases include Marc Forster’s “The Kite Runner,” based on the book by Afghan-raised author Khaled Hosseini and adapted by scribe David Benioff. Paramount Classics opens the film in 35 theaters in key markets.

Release of “Kite Runner” was delayed from Nov. 2 so Par Classics could relocate four of the young actors from Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates out of fear for their safety.

Sony Pictures Classics unspools Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth” in six theaters in Gotham, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, along with music director James Levine, came up with the theatrical initiative — Metropolitan Opera: Live in High Definition — as part of a campaign to broaden the opera house’s audience and make its programming more accessible.

“Romeo and Juliette” is conducted by Placido Domingo and stars Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna.

Met series is being distributed in the U.S. through a renewed partnership with National CineMedia, and through a renewed partnership with Cineplex Entertainment in Canada. In Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, the simulcasts will air in eight theaters through a deal with Empire Theaters.

Program began a year ago in 90 theaters in the U.S.; that number was upped to 209 by the last simulcast of the opera’s 2006-07 season. All told, the simulcasts grossed $4 million. Many of the shows were sold out.

In addition, this time, the simulcasts will be shown in 17 independent theaters and venues run by U.S. performing arts orgs and colleges.

With moviegoers distracted by other forms of entertainment, exhibs say they are eager to offer alternative content, such as the Met broadcasts. Also, the ticket prices for the simulcasts are significantly higher than for a regular movie.

The 2007-08 season includes six other simulcasts after “Romeo and Juliette”: “Hansel and Gretel” (Jan. 1), “Manon Lescaut” (Feb. 16), “Peter Grimes” (March 15), “Tristan und Isolde” (March 22), “La Boheme” (April 5) and “La Fille du Regiment” (April 26).

Abroad, the Met simulcasts will play in Australia, Europe, Japan, as well as just-added Poland and Puerto Rico.

Elsewhere on the foreign front, “The Golden Compass” will remain the dominant player as the fantasy expands into Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico and much of Eastern Europe.

“Compass” has shown more traction overseas than domestically, underlining the ability of fantasy fare to connect with customers outside the U.S. It’s banked nearly $60 million in international coin from 25 offshore markets as of Wednesday, led by $18 million in the U.K. and $8.5 million in Spain.

Warner Bros. also will be an international player via Asian day-and-date openings of “I Am Legend” with launches in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Given the foreign appeal of Will Smith and the offshore appetite for action, the sci-fier’s expected to be the leading pic once it moves into Euro territories the following frame.

Disney’s “Enchanted” and Paramount’s “Bee Movie” — a pair of family-oriented movies still early in their foreign runs — have set expansions for the frame, with “Enchanted” widening into Brazil, Holland, Mexico and the U.K., while “Bee” flies into France, Germany and the U.K. “Bee” opened respectably in France with $1.1 million on Wednesday.

Fox is opening “Alvin” day-and-date in a few markets including Greece, Hong Kong and Turkey, and Warner’s taking “Fred Claus” into Holland and Spain. Universal’s launching “American Gangster,” which is nearing $50 million offshore, in Russia.

And in a sign of how difficult it is for American comedies to succeed in Japan, Par’s opening “Blades of Glory” in that market a full nine months after its domestic launch.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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