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Will Arnold, Reese set off fireworks?

With a 2% seasonal slump, B.O. could use sparklers

Beachgoers will hope for sunshine over the Fourth of July weekend and industryites for gross-inducing rain, but even a robust box office won’t fix summer 2003 in one fell swoop.

“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is the presumed frontrunner of three wide releases unspooled Wednesday, amid a 2% seasonal slump in industrywide grosses.

But “T3” isn’t likely to be a record-breaker of “Independence Day” proportions (aptly named actioner reigns as sesh champ with $96.1 million from a five-day bow in 1996). So other pics will also have to deliver solid perfs to reverse a recent series of downbeat B.O. weekends.

Still, pre-release tracking showed big interest in the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner, following largely positive early reviews for the first new installment in the topliner’s signature movie franchise in a dozen years. Some 2,569 preview showtimes staged for “T3” on Tuesday night rang up an impressive $4 million, and many theaters sold out, though some preem venues like Hollywood’s Mann Chinese did not.

Warner Bros. pumped up “T3” distribution to 6,400 screens in 3,504 theaters by Wednesday.

‘Blonde’ expectations

MGM is expected to do decently big biz with its Reese Witherspoon starrer “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde,” set for 3,355 playdates. First ditzy laffer opened with $20.4 million in July 2001, but expectations are higher for the sequel.

And DreamWorks tooner “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” — though tracking much lighter than the other new pics — could surprise with stronger than anticipated family interest, as kidpics are notoriously hard to predict. Boasting voiceover perfs by Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and others, “Sinbad” sails into 3,086 theaters.

Major holdover pics include Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels” and Universal’s “The Hulk,” which will be looking to rebound from disappointing seshes last weekend. By contrast, Fox Searchlight horror pic “28 Days Later” exceeded expectations and will be adding about 150 playdates to last weekend’s 1,260 runs.

Mass movement

Collectively, the sheer mass of movies makes it likely Americans will choke down at least a fair bit of popcorn along with their hot dogs and hamburgers this BBQ weekend.

“The July 4th weekend is definitely one of the biggest weekends of the year, no matter what,” said Dan Marks, exec veep at B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI.

Weather will be a big factor in determining who goes to the theater on what day. But the best guess is that B.O. from Friday-through-Sunday showtimes will comprise 55%-65% of pics’ five-day totals.

Industryites figure “T3” safe for at least $80 million over the five-day span, including grosses from the Tuesday night previews. Pic’s R rating could prove a significant obstacle to its opening substantially higher, but it could still end up in the range of the PG 13-rated “Men in Black” pics, which opened at $84.1 million and $87.2 million over five days in 1997 and 2002, respectively.

Jump start

“Historically, most of the films that open this weekend open on a Wednesday,” Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman said. “We have such a built-in fan base for ‘T3’ (that) we elected to do a special preview the night before to give us a jump start on the holiday.”

Pic played well with preview auds, he added. “In a lot of theaters, there was applause at the end of the movie — which I always like to hear,” Fellman said.

Warners is offering “T3” in digital projection in 29 locations, the most it could muster due to limited availability of digital venues.

“We open almost half our movies digitally,” Fellman noted. “There’s a time not too long down the road when everything is going to go digital. So it’s good for our tech group to start working with digital and also good for the exhibitors and the public to start to get a taste of it.”

$200 mil venture

Production costs on “T3” are believed to total about $200 million. Producers C2 and Intermedia will split pic’s domestic box office with Warners, which paid an unspecified sum for those rights; Sony is pic’s foreign distrib.

“Legally Blonde 2” should see B.O. well north of $40 million, if pre-release interest is any indication. “Blonde 2” was actually out-tracking “T3” among young femmes, though the Schwarzenegger pic has other demos locked up.

“We’re excited,” MGM distrib topper Erik Lomis enthused. “Obviously, we think ‘Terminator’ will win the weekend, but we like our prospects. Reese Witherspoon is terrific in the movie, and people really like her.”

“Sinbad,” a traditional tooner with additional digital elements, could ring up $15 million-$20 million, some observers estimate.

“It’s a little hard to say what it will do, with the other movies opening in the marketplace and all the ones already in theaters,” DreamWorks distrib boss Jim Tharp observed.

Industrywide, the weekend will be compared to a year-earlier holiday frame that was solid but hardly unbeatable. Last year, “Men in Black 2” topped competish with a $52 million domestic haul from the weekend following a Thursday holiday.

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