'Hugo' should come in third in $7 million range

Early Friday returns at the domestic box office suggest potential close race between “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part I” and “The Muppets,” with Summit’s vampire franchise having the edge with $14 million to $15 million, compared to an estimated $13 million for the Disney family pic.

Paramount’s “Hugo,” expanding to 1,840 theaters and coming off a best picture nod from the National Board of Review, is looking to take the bronze with between $6.5 million and $7.5 million in three days.

Meanwhile, B.O. watchers say Warner Bros.’ “Happy Feet 2″ will likely gross around $5 million to $5.5 million, slightly below estimates for Sony Animation’s “Arthur Christmas.” Fox Searchlight’s “The Descendants,” which also picked up some awards heat early this week, isn’t down much from last weekend; analysts suggest the pic will do in the $4.5 million to $5 million range.

Searchlight also has the weekend’s only notable newcomer, “Shame,” which observers say looks to have a healthy per-screen average of around $35,000 for the weekend at its nine opening locations. Indie titles can be hard to predict, however, given their reliance on word-of-mouth.

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