Universal sequel eyes 2011's best opening yet

Box office pundits are forecasting summerlike conditions at the global B.O. this weekend, with Universal’s “Fast Five” expected to become 2011’s best-yet Stateside debut and Paramount’s tentpole “Thor” opening in virtually every major overseas market.

“Fast Five,” which launches today at 3,643 locations, including 244 Imax runs, has been tracking solidly with U.S. auds for several weeks now and is expected to top the domestic frame handily with a launch of $60 million-$70 million. Par’s “Thor,” having already debuted in Australia with $5.7 million, launches a week before its Stateside bow on May 2 in a total 57 overseas markets.

Last year’s summer B.O. sesh similarly kicked off overseas a week before the U.S. with “Iron Man 2,” though 2010 lacked an early Stateside tentpole comparable to “Fast Five.”

U is saying the weekend figure for “Fast Five” could be lower than industry predictions — somewhere around $50 million — especially given this year’s depressed box office. But that still would be more than enough to outstrip the year’s benchmark, Fox’s “Rio,” which opened earlier this month to $39.2 million.

Expected to debut more modestly are Disney’s tween-targeted “Prom,” at 2,730 locations, and the Weinstein Co.’s 3D toon sequel “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil,” at 2,505, of which approximately 1,800 — or 72% — are 3D-equipped.

Freestyle Releasing is also opening supernatural spoof “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night” at an aggressive 862 locations.

Though the summer box office season typically begins the first weekend in May, it’s been creeping up in recent years with early overseas bows like “Iron Man 2.” Universal has positioned “Fast Five” as the kick-off to the summer season, marketing the film as the summer’s first major blockbuster.

“Fast Five,” budgeted at a pricey $125 million, opened last weekend in four international territories with $23.5 million. Pic expands this weekend to 11 new markets, including Germany, Russia and Spain.

Domestically, “Fast Five” should score best with its core male demo as well as ethnic auds. Movie has drawn strong interest among Hispanics and African-Americans, both of whom are expected to help lift the film’s opening take, including a wide midnight jumpstart on Thursday.

The franchise’s fourth installment, which cost $85 million, bowed in early April 2009 to a stellar $71 million — one of U’s biggest three-day openings ever — and wound up grossing $363 million worldwide. It’s uncertain whether “Fast Five” will be able to reach similar opening heights as “Fast and Furious,” though most B.O. observers say it’s certainly possible; storms in the South are a concern, however.

The week’s other two openers, “Prom” and “Hoodwinked Too!,” will look to benefit as counterprogramming to the male-driven “Fast Five.”

Reportedly budgeted at just less than $10 million, the PG-rated “Prom” should play best with girls and young teens, as well as potential mother-daughter outings. “Prom” marks the first pic to hit multiplexes that was greenlit under Disney topper Rich Ross’ tenure. Pic also fulfills the Mouse’s mandate for releasing modestly budgeted films with cross-promotion potential.

Disney expects “Prom” to debut at $7 million-$9 million, as does Weinstein with “Hoodwinked Too!” That pic from Kanbar Entertainment cost around $15 million and is being handled as a service deal by Weinstein. The first “Hoodwinked” grossed more than $50 million in 2005.

Fox’s toon holdover “Rio” will continue to occupy families’ attention, which doesn’t bode too well for “Hoodwinked.” “Rio” has cumed $87 million domestically, and after last weekend’s steady hold, down just 33%, the toon should play well in its third frame.

The frame’s soph players, Fox’s “Water for Elephants” and Lionsgate’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” will look to maintain ground but will have to compete against “Fast Five,” which could attract general auds based on franchise popularity. “Water for Elephants” has cumed $21.8 million through Wednesday, while “Happy Family” reached nearly $30 million at Stateside plexes.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more