Testing the titans

Rookie trio takes on 'Clones' and Spidey

A high voltage box office battle is set for the Memorial Day weekend, as a pair of blockbusters still going strong face three major releases over a sesh expected to set an all-time high for industrywide box office.

Prospects for one of the openers — DreamWorks’ family toon “Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron” — are uncertain, while Warner Bros. is so high on Al Pacino-toplined suspenser “Insomnia,” it’s touting early Oscar-nom talk. And Sony’s Jennifer Lopez starrer “Enough” is enough of a major release to warrant its prominent slotting over the holiday frame as well.

Twentieth Century Fox’s challenge will be to avoid a precipitous soph-sesh drop for “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” And Sony will try for another good hold for “Spider-Man” after marking all-time high grosses for a bow, soph sesh and third frame over the past three weekends.

DreamWorks is mum on expectations for “Spirit,” but traditional-animated feature’s best shot at recouping considerable — if unspecified — production costs may lie in generating good word of mouth over the coming frame. Truly impressive opening numbers appear out of reach, and execs will likely be happy just getting north of $20 million over four days.

Recent sneaks of the drama about a pack of wild horses were reasonably well attended, and it’s also hopeful that auds rated “Spirit” highly. But pre-release tracking skews quite young and heavily female — not the best signs for a pricey toon intended for the broadest possible family constituency. However, tracking for kid pics is notoriously unreliable.

‘Insomnia’ a sleeper hit?

Early rave reviews could make “Insomnia” sesh’s sleeper hit. Warners is just the distrib on “Insomnia,” produced by Alcon Entertainment for a reputed cost under $60 million.

Alcon co-prexy Andrew Kosove cited helmer Christopher Nolan’s work on “Insomnia” as particularly noteworthy.

“He took a really good script and did some great things with it,” Kosove observed. “There’s a need in the marketplace for an adult film, and we looked for a date to counterprogram the big commercial summer movies that kicked out in May,” Warners distrib boss Dan Fellman explained. “Now, we have the reviews to support it, so I’m looking for a very successful weekend.”

Sony figures “Enough” will be plenty popular with young femmes. What’s uncertain is whether topliner and pop crooner Lopez can expand on that core base of support.

Will Spidey stay sticky?

Distrib’s “Spider-Man” posted skimpy drops of 38% and 37% in its second and third frames, respectively, so it will be interesting to see if comicbook actioner can remain similarly sticky over the holiday-stretched sesh. “Clones” marks its ninth day of release on Friday, but execs declined to discuss soph-sesh prospects.

All three openers unspool Friday, with “Spirit” corralling 3,317 venues, “Insomnia” 2,610 and “Enough” 2,623. “Spider-Man” still will be play in more than 3,615 theaters and “Attack of the Clones” in 3,161.

Several limited bows are also skedded for the holiday frame, including a romance-tinged drama from tyro helmer Roman Coppola — the latest of Francis Ford Coppola’s progeny to get behind the camera. United Artists has penciled in “CQ” for five L.A. engagements and two in Gotham, with pic expanding into additional markets over subsequent frames.

The various openers enter the market amid a spate of robust moviegoing. Year-to-date, 2002 is pacing 22% ahead of the same portion of last year, and last weekend’s B.O. was 71% higher than the same frame in 2001.

Frenetic competish

So, heading into a holiday sesh boasting two established major hits with three skedded wide releases, the Memorial Day frame — historically dominated by single big openers — could be marked by unusually frenetic competish this year. But Nielsen EDI exec veep Dan Marks said frame’s wide openers share a useful strength in their focused approach to the marketplace.

” ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Star Wars’ appeal to the broadest possible base, but the three pictures coming in target a more specific demographic of one sort or another,” Marks said. “And those audiences may still be available, despite the fact that there are some behemoths in the marketplace (because) the market tends to expand over Memorial Day.”

That’s not to say there won’t be the usual winners and losers, in relative terms. But between the recently hot B.O. and the surfeit of big movie titles, “This one should be one incredible Memorial Day weekend,” Marks said.

“Based on the existing megahits in the marketplace and the additional openers, we stand an excellent chance of setting an all-time weekend record,” he estimated. That’s what happened over the same frame last year, when $186.9 million in total four-day grosses were tallied industrywide.

Some observers expect this weekend to push north of $200 million industrywide.