Critics' approval and Oscar buzz fuel B.O.

LONDON — Brad Pitt starrer “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” springs into life at the European box office this weekend with openings in France, Spain and the U.K. “Frost/Nixon,” another Oscar hopeful, is also a significant mover with debuts in Spain, Italy and Germany.

In the U.K., a fleet of openers hit an already bouncy marketplace, which has recently been dominated by Danny Boyle’s Mumbai-set thriller “Slumdog Millionaire.” This weekend’s newbies are a combination of upmarket Oscar hopefuls, like “Button” and “Doubt,” and multiplex crowdpleasers “Bolt,” “She’s Just Not That Into You” (day-and-date) and “The Punisher: War Zone”. A total of 10 new pics hit wickets in what promises to be a very competitive frame.

Snowy, freezing weather across Blighty should encourage Brits to take a trip to the warmth of the cinema. Sunday night’s BAFTA awards are televised but usually do not draw massive auds, so should not negatively impact on box-office receipts.

Of the newbies, “Bolt” and “Button” are expected to do particularly well. The box-office draw of Pitt and Cate Blanchett and awards season buzz surrounding “Button” should help boost B.O.

Bookers expect 3-D ducats for “Bolt” to go like hot cakes — Brit auds have recently flocked to see “My Bloody Valentine” in 3-D.

In France, there were three big bows on Wednesday. Disney toon “Bolt” had a whopping opening over one million dollars on 687 — the second best day one of the year after “Twilight.” And third place for 2009 to date goes to “Button,” which pulled $736,235 on 566 for Warners. French crix went utterly gaga for Fincher’s pic. “A grand, flamboyant melodrama, in the purest Hollywood tradition, but with all the benefits of modern technology,” raved Ouest France.

“LOL (Laughing Out Loud)” also enjoyed a strong opening day for Pathe, taking $646,840 on 430. Helmer Lisa Azuelos’ bittersweet laffer, toplining Sophie Marceau as a mom trying to connect with her adolescent daughter, was generally well received. “Funny and well-written … It succeeds in throwing light on some of the adolescent codes of today,” praised Premiere.

In Italy, the big release is local laffer “Ex” from Italo veteran helmer Fausto Brizzi. The sex comedy, which goes out on 620 screens via 01 Distribution, should be helped by good reviews and a cast full of household names.

Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” which Universal send out on 150 copies, also bows with the blessing of Italo crix who have lavished praise on leads Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.

Other releases are Jonas Akerlund’s slasher “The Horsemen” (out on 150 via Moviemax) and Philippe Claudel’s lauded Gallic drama “I’ve Loved You So Long,” starring Kristin Scott Thomas, which debuts on 47 from Mikado.

In Spain, Warner’s “Button” opens on 459 to an unanimously warm welcome from crix and bookers who expect a bow approaching $3.5 million. Exhibs note that the running time limits the number of screenings but point out that the lengthy “Australia” played well recently. “The feature proves that David Fincher is a visionary with the total control of the grammar of the masterpiece,” said leading paper El Pais.

“Frost/Nixon” goes out on a modest 88 to equally rave reviews. “An exemplary, powerful piece of work with a strong sense of spectacle,” said monthly Fotogramas. “A superb historical document,” declared El Pais.

BVI’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” bows on 300 with tradesters hoping the simple fact that there hasn’t been much kids’ fare of late will help it grind out a good bow.

Elsewhere, Joaquin Oristrell’s “Dieta mediterranea,” a Spanish romantic comedy about a female master chef from Barcelona, bows on a generous 206 via Alta. “It’s a difficult release date with very strong rivals, but ‘Dieta’ could show stamina,” predicted a local booker.

Javier Fesser’s “Camino,” which picked up six Goya prizes, including best picture, gets a relaunch on 125 via Alta, who originally bowed it in October. The running cume stands at $1.6 million.

Additional reporting by Michael Day (Italy), Emilio Mayorga (Spain) and David Hayhurst (France).

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