'Friends With Benefits' enters frame as counter-programming

The weekend is shaping up as a fight to the finish between “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ in the latter’s second frame.

“Captain America,” which Paramount is launching at 3,715 domestic locations, including 2,511 in 3D, is expected to open at $55 million-$60 million. That would be a fine start for the summer’s latest comicbook adaptation, but it’s still less than the $65.7 million opening for Par’s earlier Marvel pic, “Thor.”

While “Captain America” is the fourth superhero pic this summer (and third from Marvel), Sony/Screen Gems’ “Friends With Benefits” is the fifth R-rated comedy of the season.

“Friends With Benefits,” which opens at 2,926 U.S. playdates, should debut at $20 million-$23 million, according to bizzers.

The “Captain America” debut will depend on how well “Harry Potter” holds this weekend after its record-setting bow, as well as the Par pic’s 3D perf. “Harry Potter” and “Captain America” are competing for 3D screens, with the latter at a significant disadvantage considering it doesn’t have Imax.

“Potter,” which has cumed $214.9 million domestically, continues to see top mid-week biz and will retain all 3,011 3D locations even with “Captain America” entering the market.

Last weekend, “Potter” disappointed with 3D, scoring just 43% of its opening from the format, including 9% from Imax. That could go up this weekend: Some bizzers expect significant repeat biz to come from 3D, in which case “Potter” could see a better-than-expected hold overall. Without a 3D boost, most B.O. observers predict a drop around 60%, putting “Potter” in the $60 million-$65 million range for the weekend.

Overseas, “Potter” will have another clear playing field; pic is expected to continue its dominance after last weekend’s $313.5 million debut.

“Captain America” launches day-and-date with the U.S. only in Italy, though Par’s attention likely will be more focused on “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which bows this weekend in China. “Transformers,” with an overseas cume of $462 million, opened almost everywhere around the world four weeks ago except China. (The “Potter” bow in that territory was delayed until Aug. 4.)

Par launched “Captain America” at some 1,800 domestic midnight runs but went a step further at Comic-Con, catering to fanboys in San Diego by launching the pic at noon on Thursday at one location. The film’s fanboy appeal could boost 3D shares, though Par took more pains in marketing “Transformers” — not “Captain America” — as a 3D event. That’s because “Captain America,” budgeted for a reported $140 million, has more of a throwback feel with fewer spectacles than “Transformers,” according to the studio.

Meanwhile, “Friends With Benefits” looks to benefit from the favorable climate for R-rated comedies; the most recent, “Horrible Bosses,” is ultimately expected to cross $100 million domestically. Universal’s “Bridesmaids” is the summer’s biggest success story, having cumed $162 million (more than six times its opening).

“Friends” marks the year’s second comedy about platonic bedfellows after Par launched “No Strings Attached” in January. The Par pic opened to $19.7 million, with Stateside totals reaching $70.7 million.

At the specialty B.O., Freestyle Releasing bows Jenna Fischer starrer “A Little Help” at 22 locations, while Fox Searchlight’s Sundance pickup “Another Earth” goes out at four engagements.

The Weinstein Co.’s Holocaust thriller “Sarah’s Key” also bows this weekend in limited release at a total five locations in New York and L.A.

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