“Monsters University” (Disney)

The question looming over the domestic box office this weekend is just how much can the market expand. The answer: Not enough.

With “Monsters University” expected to earn around $80 million through Sunday, followed by “Man of Steel” looking at the low-$50 millions, Paramount’s big-budget risk “World War Z” could end up a distant third place.

Pre-release tracking puts the $190 million-budgeted zombie actioner in the low-$40 million range. That falls in line with historical trends, as never before have three films earned more than $50 million each during a non-holiday frame.

The projected Stateside opening for PG-13-rated “Z” doesn’t spell automatic doom for the pricey disaster pic, but it certainly makes its road to profitability a steep one. The film will need to clear at least $150 million domestically for Par execs to breathe easily. That’s a high bar to clear, and once again puts much of the financial burden on international markets, of which 25 will bow the pic day-and-date this weekend. The good news is tracking for the film so far has been strong internationally, and Brad Pitt has actively promoting the film overseas having visited countries like Russia and Spain.

“World War Z” bowed Thursday in Australia and South Korea, where it scored a solid $1 million-plus opening day each.

Meanwhile, “Monsters University” launches this weekend in 35 international markets, including Australia, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Russia and Spain. Disney rolls out the toon in most other major markets in July.

The film should score the second-highest domestic opening for Pixar, behind “Toy Story 3,” which earned $110 million this same weekend in 2010. It’s less certain whether “Monsters University” will have similar legs, however. The film is more mixed reviews than some other Pixar films, with 79% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, which could deter some adult filmgoers, especially with so many other moviegoing options.

Still, Pixar historically does well with young adults, who might be even more inclined to see “Monsters University” since they grew up with its predecessor, “Monsters Inc.,” which first bowed theatrically more than a decade ago.

“Monsters University” is dominating early ticket sales, followed by “World War Z” and “Man of Steel,” according to online ticketing site Fandango. “Man of Steel” bowed last weekend with a massive $116 million in three days, and if it drops around 55% this weekend, that would put the film at roughly $52 million. Pic has cumed $161.8 million through Wednesday.

“Man of Steel” has done especially well so far during mid-weeks, a benefit of summertime moviegoing (especially when it comes to original properties) that Paramount execs are quick to relate to “World War Z.”

Based on a book by Max Brooks, the film was originally slated to open last Christmas, but Par moved “Z” back to allow for re-shoots, as well as to position the film as a summer tentpole. The costly re-shoots — which reportedly caused the pic’s budget to balloon beyond original estimates — mostly were focused on creating a more satisfying ending. Judging by most reviews and early word-of-mouth, director Marc Forster achieved that, which should help its legs.

Ultimately, after settling on the summer, Paramount was stuck with a tough decision dating “World War Z” — a week earlier, up against “Man of Steel,” was out of the question, while any later would have pitted the film against other non-franchise juggernauts like “The Lone Ranger” and “Pacific Rim.”

Disney, meanwhile, has an impressive track record with launching a Pixar film this time of year. The Mouse successfully bowed “Brave” this same weekend last year, with other top-notch June debuts from “Cars 2″ and “Wall-E.”

Leading the specialty mix, newbie distrib A24′s “The Bling Ring,” which scored a solid opening per-screen last weekend, expands to 650 locations on Friday.

Bowing

Film (Distributor): Locations

  • Monsters University (Disney): 4,004
  • World War Z (Par): 3,607

Expanding

  • The Bling Ring (A24): 5-605
  • Much Ado About Nothing (Roadside): 23-206

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