'Baby Mama,' 'Harold & Kumar' to duke it out

Summer isn’t officially here, but the comedy glut at the box office sure is.

Universal bows female-skewing “Baby Mama” this weekend — one week after the studio released the Judd Apatow-branded “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Also opening is Warner Bros.’ “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” which should grab the men.

And right around the corner are “Sex and the City,” “What Happens in Vegas” and “Made of Honor.”

It’s unusual for one studio to open two comedies back to back, as U is doing. Conventional wisdom would say that “Baby Mama” — starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — and “Sarah Marshall” could cannibalize each other.

Universal’s decision reflects the bind in which studios find themselves as the release calendar becomes more and more crowded: There just aren’t that many places to go.

Originally, the R-rated “Sarah Marshall” was set to open May 30, but U decided to move up the release to April 18, one week before “Baby Mama,” to get out of the way of summer pics including New Line’s “Sex and the City,” which had moved onto the May 30 date.

U couldn’t necessarily go any earlier in the spring with “Sarah Marshall,” particularly since there was already one Apatow-produced film in the marketplace: “Drillbit Taylor,” which Paramount released in March.

Universal prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution Adam Fogelson said he gets why some people may question U’s decision to open “Baby Mama” and “Sarah Marshall” so close to each other.

“While I totally understand the instinct to worry, I’ve had a hard time finding numbers to support the notion that the legs are cut out from under a movie because of a new opener, or that a new opener can’t get traction because of a movie already in the marketplace,” Fogelson said.

While “Baby Mama” will play to females, John Cho-Kal Penn starrer “Harold & Kumar” should play well among younger men, also one of the key demos for Apatow’s raunchy romantic comedies.

“Baby Mama” and “Harold & Kumar” are rated PG-13 and R, respectively.

The heavily marketed “Sarah Marshall” opened to $17.7 million last weekend on the strength of younger women and men. Film came in second to Lionsgate’s Jet Li-Jackie Chan fantasy adventure “Forbidden Kingdom,” which opened to $21.4 million.

“Sarah Marshall” cost $30 million to produce, so U is likely in good shape financially. Still, the studio is betting that the raunchy laffer will have the same strong legs as previous Apatow hits “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Fogelson said movies have “legs regardless of what kind of new movie is coming into the marketplace, even if it is a film that’s similar in genre.”

He points to the record-breaking box office in summer 2007, when any number of movies did good business despite fierce competition.

“Harold & Kumar” could have an edge going into the weekend, according to early tracking. Like “Sarah Marshall,” neither “Baby Mama” nor “Harold & Kumar” were expensive to produce.

New Line’s “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” stoner comedy cumed just $18 million at theaters in 2004 but went on to become a smash hit on DVD. Sequel, which pokes irreverent fun at the Bush administration’s war on terror, is the first New Line title to be distributed by Warner Bros. since New Line was largely disbanded and made a label in the WB fold.

If the audience is fractured this weekend, it only gets more intense next session, when Paramount/Marvel’s “Iron Man” and Sony’s romantic comedy “Made of Honor” officially kick off summer at the box office. The next weekend, on May 9, Warners bows “Speed Racer,” while 20th Century Fox opens “What Happens in Vegas” — another comedy. Also over the May 9 frame, Paramount Vantage opens laffer “Son of Rambow” in a limited run.

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