Bulky ‘Hulk’ set to flex

Screens, good reviews, gamma rays equal a big bow

This weekend, one of Hollywood’s great summer parlor games will culminate with the release of Universal’s “The Hulk.”

One point is indisputable: The pic has enough critical mass to be a serious contender. Boasting a muscular 6,000 screens in 3,661 theaters, the Marvel comic adaptation, based on many projections, seems likely to gross at least $50 million over its opening weekend. But awareness of the angst-ridden actioner is through the roof, so an even stronger bow is possible if 11th-hour marketing can boost must-see sentiment.

Tracking surveys have shown less enthusiasm among female auds, with teen boys comprising the core. But an eye-popping 27% of respondents in one prerelease “Hulk” survey registered an “unaided awareness” of the pic, meaning they knew of the pic but hadn’t learned of it from a particular trailer or commercial.

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“You normally wouldn’t see a number that high until after a movie has opened,” noted an exec from a rival studio.

U officials declined to speculate on weekend prospects, but a certain white-knuckle optimism is pervading the Black Tower. “We couldn’t be prouder of this movie,” U vice chairman Marc Shmuger said. “When you look at the other tentpole movies that have launched new franchises and how they have performed, we think we’re right in the money with this movie to do as well or better.”

Internet buzz on “Hulk” has largely hinged on the look of the computer-generated title character, drawing some heat for a perceived lack of photorealism in pirated early version clips. But initial critical reaction has been positive, and a lavish preem drew largely complimentary comments Tuesday night.

“Everybody at the studio is extremely excited about this project finally coming to the bigscreen, and we’re certainly confident with the magnitude of the opening,” U distribution chief Nikki Rocco said. “We’ll leave it up to the movie gods after that.”

If “Hulk” meets expectations, bow would extend U bragging rights for consecutive $50 million openings. Studio recently became the first distrib to pull off such a feat when it debuted “2 Fast 2 Furious” at $50.5 million after an earlier $68 million Friday-Sunday for its “Bruce Almighty.”

With those two pics still in wide release, the addition of “Hulk” gives U a studio-record number of market playdates at 9,883. That’s 117 more than a previous studio high set in May 2000.

Hefty “Hulk” run itself falls just short of a recent industry highs. Twentieth Century Fox recently raised the bar on the domestic playdates record with 3,741 for “X2: The X-Men United.”

Beauty vs. brawn

Two other pics also open wide this Friday but rep inconsequential “Hulk” competish.

Older femmes appear the keenest constituency for Warner Bros./Franchise’s “Alex & Emma,” set for 2,310 locations, and that could see opening box office fall short of even the teen millions. Rob Reiner’s first directorial outing since 1999’s “The Story of Us,” romancer stars Luke Wilson (“Old School”) and Kate Hudson (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) in the title roles.

Twentieth Century Fox’s “From Justin to Kelly,” unspooling in more than 2,100 theaters, looks like to gross in the single-digit millions. Musical’s cast features singers from Fox TV’s “American Idol” program, with pic expected to do better homevid biz after its theatrical run.

Among holdover pics, Disney/Pixar tooner “Finding Nemo” enters its fourth frame with a shot at about $18 million-$20 million after a No. 1 perf last weekend. And U’s action sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious,” aiming to regain market traction after a big soph-sesh drop, could ring up $10 million or more.

Dropping out?

Three other pics that bowed to lackluster initial grosses last weekend will be hard-pressed to do much better this sesh amid all the “Hulk” hoohah. But industryites will be watching for anything like a decent market hold from Sony/Revolution’s “Hollywood Homicide,” Paramount/Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats Go Wild” and New Line’s “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.”

Industrywide, the frame also offers an opportunity to get back onto a positive track after a poor year-to-year comparison last weekend. The most recent sesh repped the first weekend in four in which industry B.O. totals lagged the same frame a year earlier.

Grosses from “Hulk” and the others will be compared with a year-ago weekend in which “Minority Report” unspooled with $35.7 million and “Lilo & Stitch” opened at $35.3 million.