'Paul,' 'Limitless' face 'Lincoln Lawyer' at open box office

After last weekend’s drastic highs and lows at the domestic box office, pundits are expecting a more even playing field as new entries, namely Universal’s “Paul” at 2,801 locations and Relativity Media’s “Limitless” at 2,756, compete for young male attention.

Also in the mix is Lionsgate legal drama “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which bows today at 2,707. It should trail its fellow openers as pre-weekend tracking suggests a launch in the low teens.

With fresh neck-and-neck competition added to Sony soph title “Battle: Los Angeles,” the weekend is shaping up to be a horse race.

Relativity’s “Limitless,” toplining Bradley Copper and Robert De Niro, may have a slight edge given its PG-13 rating and strong interest among auds under 25, a demo often given to visiting multiplexes during a pic’s opening weekend.

The key variable is how well “Battle” holds. With an expected drop around 50%, according to sources, pic would land in the mid-teens after its $35.6 million bow. “Battle” cumed nearly $44 million through Wednesday.

Several pics are filling the specialty pipeline, including Roadside Attractions’ Sundance pickup “The Music Never Stopped,” bowing at 32 locations, as well as Fox Searchlight’s Tom McCarthy-helmed “Win Win,” which also screened in Park City this year, at five playdates in New York and L.A.

Focus Features’ “Jane Eyre,” which has the highest per-screen average ($45,721) so far this year for a traditional theatrical release (Kevin Smith’s “Red State” earned more with its premium-priced single screening on March 5), expands from four locations to 26.

Several Stateside studio pics, led by “Battle” and Paramount’s “Rango,” should entice new overseas auds as they expand further into major markets. “Battle,” which opened to $16.7 million, broadens to territories including Australia, Brazil and France, while “Rango,” with a cume of $47 million, expands into Russia.

Outside the U.S., “Limitless” will bow day-and-date in Australia; “Lincoln Lawyer” is set for the U.K.

And while U’s “Paul” won’t expand internationally this weekend, the film has already grossed overseas more than $25 million, the majority of which has come from the U.K. “Paul” bowed early in Blighty to benefit from local popularity for homegrown thesps Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Pic became the market’s highest opener so far this year, with $8.9 million and a local cume of $21.4 million.

U says “Paul’s” international head start takes pressure off the $40 million pic’s Stateside launch, which is expected to fall in the mid-teens. That would be a decent start for the alien comedy, especially given its R rating and strong interest among auds under 17. Given the market’s unpredictable tracking of late, “Paul” could fall on either side of U’s expectations, though most B.O. experts say neither the film, nor its competition, is likely to debut higher than $20 million.

“Limitless,” which cost under $30 million to make, should play similar to “Paul.” Its predicted mid-teens opening will more than recoup production costs (though not yet P&A spend) for Relativity, which is responsible for less than $1 million after foreign pre-sales and tax rebates.

Pic is the first release for Richard Branson’s Virgin Produced banner, which co-produced alongside Relativity. Distrib marketed the film by using extensive word of mouth screenings, as well as traditional marketing stunts with print and broadcast ads, including a TV spot during the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, Lionsgate’s “Lincoln Lawyer,” toplining Matthew McConaughey, has shown consistent pre-release tracking between $10 million and $13 million.

But with solid interest from moviegoers over 25, especially women, Lionsgate isn’t too worried about falling behind, since many adults wait until after opening weekend to visit theaters.

In hopes of capitalizing on delayed moviegoing, Lionsgate partnered with Groupon to sell discounted tickets, starting at $6 apiece, but also made available for as low as $1 through online ticketing service Fandango. Moviegoers can redeem tickets any time, an option that should cater nicely to adults. Lionsgate said the cheaper tickets, targeted at 60 million online Groupon users, is directed at building anticipation.

Among the weekend’s top holdovers, “Rango” should continue to play well into its third frame; cume is $75 million. Last weekend, the toon dropped 41%, and, with a similar hold this weekend, the film should still land somewhere in the teens.

Pics entering their second outing, along with “Battle,” include Warners’ “Red Riding Hood” and Disney’s “Mars Needs Moms.” Both had disappointing bows, though “Red Riding Hood” had a lower production cost. Stateside totals for “Red Riding Hood” reached $17.1 million; the $150 million toon “Moms” has cumed a paltry $10 million.

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