Universal is 'Hell' bent to counter-program

Amid sky-high expectations, “Up” should live up to its title as the latest in the long line of Disney/Pixar toon successes.

“Up” opens today at 3,766 playdates, including a record 1,530 3-D sites, following an extensive promo campaign driving home the premise of a crusty old man tying thousands of balloons to his home and sailing off into the sky.

U’s “Drag Me to Hell” offers a vivid counter-programming choice, aided by a PG-13 rating, at 2,508 venues. The weekend will also demonstrate how much traction exists for Fox’s “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and Warner’s “Terminator Salvation,” both in their second frames.

But the frame clearly will belong to “Up.” With Ed Asner voicing the lead and Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.) directing, “Up” is likely to rack up an opening weekend above $60 million — a milestone already surmounted by five of the 10 Pixar entries, including “Wall-E” last June. The last major animated entry, Paramount/DreamWorks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens,” opened with $59 million two months ago.

The $60 million mark looks achievable for “Up,” given stellar reviews, additional coin from 3-D surcharges and the ongoing strong demand for family fare, evidenced over the four-day Memorial Day frame when “Smithsonian” bowed with $70 million. The second frame of “Smithsonian” is likely to take a hit in the 50% range and wind up in the 20s over the three days.

“I think ‘Up’ looks like a four-quadrant film,” noted Disney distrib topper Chuck Viane. “The 3-D is quite spectacular and a real departure from what people have seen before, so that’s going to be a real draw.”

The growing number of 3-D venues — representing more than 40% of the “Up” screens — should prove helpful to Disney, which saw “Bolt” wind up in 982 3-D locations, or 27% of total screens, while contributing 42% of the $114 million domestic cume.

“Drag Me to Hell,” starring Alison Lohman as a bank officer who’s supernaturally cursed as payback for her lack of customer service, comes into the market with the added zing of “Spider-Man” helmer Sam Raimi returning to his horror roots. Universal scared up $21 million a year ago with the opening of another horror entry, “The Strangers,” and the last major scary pic, Lionsgate’s “The Haunting in Connecticut,” wound up with $23 million in its launch.

“Drag Me” may cut into support for “Terminator Salvation,” which opened slightly below expectations with $65.3 million in its first five days. “T4″ was at $71.9 million as of Wednesday.

Par’s “Star Trek” will remain a factor in its fourth frame. The reboot of the franchise has shown impressive legs, outgrossing the second weekend of “Angels and Demons” over Memorial Day, and has already become the year’s top grosser with $195 million as of Wednesday, surpassing “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

On the specialty side, Regent is opening “Departures” in 10 locations, three months after the Japanese drama copped the foreign language Oscar. “Departures” was a major hit in its homeland with more than $60 million.

Summit’s adding 90 theaters for caper comedy “The Brothers Bloom” to boost its total to 148 after grossing a decent $618,915 in its first 11 days. IFC’s expanding French drama “Summer Hours” by five venues after seeing an impressive $320,549 at 27 in two weeks.

On the foreign front, “Angels and Demons” looks likely to continue its domination with $209 million in less than three weeks — more than double its domestic take — and an opening in India. As with “The Da Vinci Code,” which grossed $540 million outside the United States, “Angels” has shown far more traction with offshore audiences.

“Smithsonian” will be the other major contender overseas after opening with $49 million last weekend from most major markets. It’s launching in a half dozen territories, including China, Norway and the UAE.

“Terminator Salvation,” handled by Sony, opens in high-piracy Asian markets this weekend, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand. “T4″ goes into most other major territories next frame.

Other foreign launches include “Obsessed” in the U.K., “Star Trek” in Japan and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in Mexico, where the flu outbreak delayed the original opening. “Wolverine” has cumed $160 million overseas, just $5 million short of the domestic total.

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