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Surf, Murphy on deck

Will 'Blue' crush rivals?

This weekend’s industrywide box office has a shot at reversing a recent losing streak and marking the first year-over-year uptick in five frames.

But perf appears possible mostly due to an easy comparison with a lackluster year-ago frame, as the looming sesh is burdened by a pair of wide openers marked by big gaps in pre-release interest. Universal bows “Blue Crush,” a surfer-girls pic with good youth buzz but little adult traction, and Warner Bros. unspools “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” a $90 million pic lacking any certain support except select urban auds.

Still, sesh compares to one of the few weekends from summer 2001 in which openers were so weak a soph sesher — “American Pie 2” — was able to post one of the only repeat No. 1 perfs of the season. That could happen again, as a 50% drop this weekend would fetch Sony/Revolution’s “XXX” $22 million, while “Blue Crush” could be left wading in the teen millions and “Pluto Nash” orbiting single-digit ignominy.

“The picture is playing great, so we feel good about the chances for our second weekend,” Sony marketing and distrib boss Jeff Blake said of “XXX” prospects. Vin Diesel starrer is attracting mostly teens and young adults in its opening frame, but distrib is hoping to attract more older patrons this weekend.

U is likewise hoping for a similarly youth-fueled launch for “Blue Crush.”

“It’s definitely going to appeal to the under-25 crowd,” U distrib topper Nikki Rocco said. And sustained success with the youth brigade could see a broadening of interest into the older demos, Rocco added. U enjoyed just that sort of demo widening with last year’s young-skewing “Bring It On” and “The Fast and the Furious” — which respectively grossed $68.4 million and $144.5 million overall domestically — and leggy ’02 thriller “The Bourne Identity” ($113.1 million).

“Anytime you cross $100 million, you bring in the other audiences,” Rocco said.

“We’re very hot with females under 21 and gaining strength with males under 21,” U vice chairman Marc Shmuger observed. “And we’re showing possibilities of making a dent in the 20- to 30-year-old Gen-X crowd.”

Studio’s pitching young femmes on pic’s female-empowerment theme. Males will notice the bikinis, and crix should respond to dramatic cinematography.

“Blue Crush,” which carries an estimated negative cost of just $27 million, opens today with 3,002 playdates.

Warners execs declined comment on “Pluto” prior to 2,320-theater release of the sci-fi laffer, a co-production of studio’s Castle Rock unit and Oz-based Village Roadshow.

Pic has collected dust — and negative buzz — ever since its summer 2000 shoot. Distrib hasn’t done any pre-release press screenings, often a sign of potential for poor word of mouth.

Meanwhile, with most of the biggest seasonal titles already in release, the rest of this summer will be a test of pics’ marketplace legs as measured against the comparable portion of summer ’01.

From the Memorial Day frame through Aug. 11, some $2.56 billion in total grosses reps a 4% uptick compared with the same period last year. That puts the season well on track to beat last summer’s record $2.96 billion in total B.O., but higher ticket prices mean admissions may remain flat with a year ago.

Year to date, ’02 is 14% ahead of the same portion of last year, largely because industrywide grosses marked consistent weekend upticks in comparisons with year-ago frames between January and June.

But late July and early August were marked by tough comparisons with especially strong year-earlier seshes. A 10% downtick last weekend repped the fourth backsliding frame in a row.

Last year, the third weekend in August produced $115.7 million in total grosses, according to B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI.

“I give us a good chance of snapping the four-week downturn this weekend,” EDI exec veep Dan Marks said. “It looks like a horse race.”

It just won’t be a race of thoroughbreds.

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