Film opens worldwide on Thursday

This weekend Paramount faces the sort of problem any studio would love to have.

Its blockbuster hit “Iron Man” has its first real competition … but from another Par release: ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ which opens today in 4,260 theaters domestically.

It’s doubtful that “Crystal Skull,” which returns the action-adventure franchise to the bigscreen after nearly two decades, will hurt “Iron Man” to any significant degree. But if it does, at least it’s all in the family.

Last weekend — in its third frame — “Iron Man” made an impressive $31.8 million, bumping its domestic cume to $223 million. It’s the first 2008 release to jump the $200 million mark at the domestic box office. Pic, produced and financed by Marvel Entertainment, came in No. 2 for the frame behind Disney sequel “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” which opened to $55 million.

Par is distributor only on “Iron Man” and “Crystal Skull,” both rated PG-13.

The last pic in the “Indiana Jones” action-adventure franchise was released in 1989, but awareness appears to be high even among younger generations who didn’t grow up on the first three “Indiana Jones” movies. Tracking is strong across the board, stronger among older auds.

Paramount is giving the film a five-day opening frame thanks to the Memorial Day holiday and the decision to bow on Thursday.

Theater operators can start showing “Crystal Skull” at 12:01 a.m. today. Par distribution topper Jim Tharp had no estimate of how many locations would opt for midnight showings but noted that the usual practice with mega-franchise pics has been for early shows at several thousand locations.

If “Crystal Skull” producer George Lucas and Par can get the kids in theater seats as well as adults, they have a shot at besting the previous record-holder for domestic Memorial Day opener, last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” That film grossed $139.7 million for the four-day holiday.

Twentieth Century Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” opened to $122.8 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend two years ago in the second-best opening on record.

“Crystal Skull” has a good shot at making the list of 10 best openings ever. Sony’s “Spider-Man 3” is the reigning king, grossing $151.6 million in early May 2007.

To what extent “Crystal Skull” dominates other films at the box office this weekend remains to be seen. Disney is hoping that “Prince Caspian” benefits from its more family-friendly rating.

“Crystal Skull” reunites Ford with Karen Allen, who starred in the first “Indiana Jones” film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Newcomers to the franchise include Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf and Ray Winstone.

In the last several years, several franchises have seen successful revivals, most notably “Die Hard.”

International expectations for “Crystal Skull” are just as high as they are Stateside. Film goes day-and-date in nearly every foreign market except Japan and India. Pic will play in about 12,000 offshore locations.

Box office insiders predict that “Crystal Skull” will wind up somewhere in the top tier of best international launches. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” is the holder of that record, scoring a $251 million opening during the same frame last year, breaking the $231 million mark set three weekends earlier by “Spider-Man 3.”

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” set the mark for third highest foreign launch last summer when it debuted with $193 million. “The Da Vinci Code” holds the No. 4 slot at $155 million.

“Crystal Skull” made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday. Showings began Wednesday in Belgium, France and Switzerland, and the pic launches everywhere else today and Friday — except for India, where it opens May 30, and Japan, which won’t see the pic for another month.

Rivals admit that “Crystal Skull” should benefit from the solid international perf of “Iron Man,” which has already banked well over $210 million over the past three weeks. Action fans will be looking for more of the same from “Skull.”

With “Crystal Skull” not going in Japan, Disney’s launching “Prince Caspian” in that market after a solid start for the pic with $23.3 million in its first weekend in a dozen markets — 40% higher in those markets than the original “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Japanese moviegoers offered strong support for the first “Narnia” with a $57 million cume for that market, second only to the $77 million for the U.K. Disney’s holding off on most of the major markets for “Caspian” until June and July.

The only other launch of note is that of “27 Dresses” in China. Fox’s romantic comedy has shown decent traction overseas with a $78 million foreign cume.

Check out our ‘Indiana Jones’ page!

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