Will Smith returns to summer weekend hot spot

If there’s a Fourth of July box office superhero, it’s Will Smith.

Smith has starred in three of the 10 top-grossing films released over the holiday — “Independence Day” and both “Men in Black” films. Sony will look to continue that streak when opening “Hancock” today in 3,965 locations.

“Hancock,” about a derelict, boozy superhero, is different in tone than Smith’s other Fourth of July films, but with Smith’s name on the marquee, the decision to release the pic on July 2 wasn’t difficult. Smith is now the world’s biggest box office star, and “Hancock” is expected to do big business over the five-day holiday frame.

“It’s a perfect fit. It’s the heart of the summer, and every day sees great business,” said Sony prexy of distribution Rory Bruer.

The decision to put “Hancock” over the long weekend was easy, but when to date a movie isn’t always so clear-cut.

That’s why studios rely so much on the past. Patterns begin to emerge; Universal is opening musical “Mamma Mia” on July 18, the same weekend that “Hairspray” bowed last summer. Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E” opened exactly one year after the debut of Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Warner Bros. released Steve Carell starrer “Get Smart” on June 20, the same weekend that Carell starrer “Evan Almighty” opened last year.

But despite the patterns, sometimes studios have to take a risk and go against the established order.

Warner Bros. did that in 2007 when opening the R-rated “300” in March, a time of year usually dominated by family titles. But “300” opened to more than $70 million and shattered records, so Warners tried to tap into the same vein this year with “10,000 BC,” but without the same degree of success.

More recently, Disney decided to give sequel “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” a summer release, while the original “Narnia” opened in December.

“Caspian,” released on May 16, has grossed $137.8 million domestically. The movie isn’t considered a failure, but it will fall far short of the $291.7 million earned by “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which opened Dec. 9, 2005.

A movie’s performance is never determined by just one factor, such as when it opens, but release dates are an easy target for criticism. Disney prexy-CEO Bob Iger told Wall Street analysts that “Caspian’s” May 16 release date was too competitive. Most box office observers don’t agree with that thesis, saying “Caspian” was older and darker in tone than the first film.

Hollywood was abuzz for months over the decision to open both “Get Smart” and “The Love Guru” on June 20. Box office observers questioned whether the two comedies would divide the audience.

As it turned out, “Get Smart” was the clear victor, while “Love Guru” stumbled. And it’s likely that the poorly reviewed “Love Guru” would have had the same trouble anywhere else on the calendar.

A surfeit of films has forced studios to migrate outside their normal comfort zones. It’s well established that summer now begins the first weekend in May, even though most kids aren’t out of school until early June.

Studios have usually avoided opening their popcorn pics in August, but that’s changing. U’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” released last year on the first weekend in August, grossed $227.5 million domestically. This year, U opens “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” on Aug. 1, in the wake of its success with “Bourne.”

Counterprogramming during busy theatergoing times, such as summer or holidays, has become increasingly popular.

Bob Berney, a maverick in the indie distribution biz, decided to counterprogram this Fourth of July holiday with Abigail Breslin starrer “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl,” based on the wildly successful doll, book and magazine line. Berney’s Picturehouse opened the film in five select cities two weeks ago; the film goes nationwide today, playing in 1,753 theaters. On July 4 itself, the theater count grows to 1,843.

Picturehouse, which shutters this fall, didn’t have big studio dollars to wage an aggressive marketing campaign for the film and instead relied on building word of mouth with the limited release. The pic has cumed $450,140, and Picturehouse is hoping to lure girls and tweens, although there’s no lack of competition.

“Wall-E,” which opened last weekend to $63 million, should be a top player throughout the July Fourth stretch. The toon grossed $8.9 million on Monday, demonstrating that moviegoers are already in the holiday mood. Cume is $72 million, according to Rentrak.

“Hancock” isn’t expected to reach the $155.4 million earned by last summer’s July Fourth tentpole “Transformers” over a six-day stretch. That film opened July 3. Part of the total holiday haul for “Transformers” — $8.8 million — came from previews on July 2.

Just as Paramount did with “Transformers,” Sony decided to offer previews of “Hancock” on Tuesday beginning at 7 p.m.

Some consider “Hancock” to be a test of Smith’s star status considering its offbeat tone. Tracking is very strong, with most expecting the film to do north of $100 million by Sunday and perhaps more.

Smith also starred in Fourth of July pic “Wild Wild West” back in 1999. That film cumed $113.8 million.

Specialty, foreign fronts

Among new specialty players entering the market over the holiday, Sony Pictures Classics opens dramedy “The Wackness,” toplining Ben Kingsley and Famke Janssen, in six theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Thursday. Pic won the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week.

On Friday, Magnolia opens biodoc “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” in 25 runs in select markets.

On the foreign front, “Hancock” will dominate thanks to Sony making a major day-and-date splash with 5,500 prints in 50 territories this weekend. “Hancock” will open today inChina, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and the U.K., followed by launches in Australia, Brazil, Germany and South Korea. It’s going into France, Holland, Mexico and Russia next weekend.

Expectations for the international performance are sky high given Smith’s star power and willingness to promote. Two weeks ago, Sony staged foreign preems in Paris, Berlin, London and Moscow all in a matter of four days.

“Hancock” has the added advantage of coming into many foreign markets as school summer vacations start. That’s also prompting expansions of family pics “Kung Fu Panda” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

“Mamma Mia” is opening in Belgium, Greece and the U.K. two weeks ahead of its domestic launch. And “Speed Racer” is debuting in Japan after accumulating an unimpressive $40 million foreign cume in the rest of the international markets.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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