As ‘Day’ dawns, the ogre looms at the B.O.

Fox predicts opener will take No. 2 spot

This article was updated at 7:28 p.m.

If you find yourself in the path of a monster, it’s usually best to get out of the way.

Twentieth Century Fox will unleash its climate disaster pic “The Day After Tomorrow,” starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, on 3,425 screens Memorial Day weekend. But despite expectations that the pic will open strongly, even the studio is predicting it will take the No. 2 spot on the weekend box office chart behind “Shrek 2’s” second-week take.

Also opening this weekend is Kate Hudson starrer “Raising Helen,” from Buena Vista, at 2,717 locations and MGM’s urban laffer “Soul Plane” with 1,566 playdates.

Through Wednesday, the “Shrek” sequel had grossed $156.5 million. DreamWorks will further expand the pic — already the most widely distributed film ever — this weekend to 4,223 locations. Pic could take a 40% drop in its second week, relatively steep for a Memorial Day weekend, and still gross more than $80 million over the four-day frame.

“Day After Tomorrow,” which Fox expects to open in the mid-50s, would still fall well below most “Shrek” estimates.

Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder said that the top rank on the box office charts doesn’t make any difference. “I would rather be No. 2 at $55 million than No. 1 at $45 million,” he said.

That may be true, but given the amount of effort that studios spend trying to get pics to No. 1, there has to be some value to the rank.

Ultimately, distrib execs say, it comes down to free media. Box office charts appear so widely these days — everywhere from newspapers to cable news channels to those little screens in elevators — that being on top amounts to a ton of free advertising.

“You assume that type of press is good for $5 million or $6 million worth of advertising,” one distrib topper said. “And it’s not coming from me. It’s coming from an independent news outlet, so it’s being verified. It’s much better to have Diane Sawyer say your picture is No. 1 than to say it yourself.”

“Day After Tomorrow” helmer Roland Emmerich is no stranger to the pole position. His “Independence Day” picked up $96 million over a five-day holiday span in 1996; “Godzilla,” released on the Wednesday before Memorial Day in 1998, picked up $74 million in its first six days.

Promoted heavily — a blurb deal with ESPN has dubbed the cabler’s coverage of NBA playoff games “Play Like There’s No Tomorrow” — the f/x-driven pic is expected to appeal to a male aud that may find “Shrek” too cutesy.

The film has also benefited from added publicity generated by environmental groups seeking to use its heat to generate interest in policies that would combat global warming. Better news for Fox is that some of these groups, including MoveOn.org, are encouraging volunteers to go see the pic and then hand out literature to other people in the auditorium.

Day-and-date record

Fox is also bowing “Day After” this weekend in 110 foreign markets in 100 countries outside the U.S. and Canada — the widest day-and-date bow yet.

MGM hopes that “Soul Plane” plays similarly to 2002’s “Undercover Brother,” which opened up with $12 million against “The Sum of All Fears,” which took $31.2 million.

While MGM distrib prexy Erik Lomis said the core constituency for the pic will be young African-American auds, he thinks it has a chance to cross over. “It’s an equal opportunity offender. Basically, it’s a very modestly budgeted film, we have a clear shot at our core demographic, and if it’s going to cross over into the suburbs, this is the weekend.”

The release of “Raising Helen” means that four pictures will likely gross more than $10 million for the Memorial Day weekend. While the holiday normally expands the business, it makes for a crowded marketplace.

In limited releases, United Artists will opens “Saved!” on 20 screens in five cities. Sony Pictures Classics debuts two pics in Gotham and L.A.: “Baadasssss!,” with 14 playdates, and “The Mother” on seven screens. Also unspooling is IFC’s “Frankie and Johnny Are Married” in L.A. at the Westside Pavilion.