B.O., auds welcome back ‘Potter’

Pic to make 2nd-highest bow of all time on 3,855 screens

This article was updated at 9:31 p.m.

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” will seek to cast another spell on the box office this weekend, mounting the first big challenge to ticket monster “Shrek 2.”

Warner Bros. is releasing the third in its wizard series on 3,855 screens, the second-highest bow of all time following “Shrek 2’s” 4,163.

This “Potter” pic is the first to get a summer release. The first two both saw stellar success launching in the second week of November. In 2001, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” grossed $90.3 million in its first three days. A year later, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” posted $88.4 million in its opening weekend.

Moving the pic to the summer season has a clear advantage: Nearly half of all schools in the U.S. will be out for summer vacation this weekend. Last weekend, only about a third of elementary and high schools had closed.

“I would anticipate that the mid-weeks should be very strong for ‘Harry’ considering in November, kids were in school,” says Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman.

But the summer season means stiffer competition for aud attention.

DreamWorks has programmed “Shrek 2” to maximize its box office before “Potter” enters the picture — the Wednesday cume of $271.5 million for “Shrek 2” officially passed the original’s total run of $267.7 million.

Of “Potter’s bow,” DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp said, “I think it’s a direct hit on our core audience.”

Because the Memorial Day holiday meant better Sunday grosses, “Shrek” will likely drop more than 50%, as will 20th Century Fox’s “The Day After Tomorrow.” Those sorts of drops would put the pics in the low- to mid-30s.

With or without the green ogre, Warners has had to face the tricky task of keeping the “Potter” franchise alive. It’s been six years since the first “Potter” book was published and three years since the first film — an eternity in the notoriously fickle children’s entertainment arena.

“We have seen an evolution of the core,” said Diane Nelson, Warners exec VP for global brand management. “The kids who were 10, 11 when the first film came out are now 13, 14 and 15.”

Reviews of the latest “Potter” have frequently labeled it “darker” than the previous two, but Nelson said there has not been a conscious effort to “age up” the franchise.

“We have worked very hard in all of our businesses, including the execution of the movie and the marketing campaign, to stay true to representing the stories which are evolving as the characters grow and move through Hogwarts,” she said.

The “Potter” phenomenon, she added, has not tapered off. “As younger kids enter the franchise, either through books, movies or DVDs, we’re not seeing the older kids drop out because it seems uncool, which is the normal trend with these kinds of franchises.”

Also opening this weekend is “Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut,” the cult pic helmed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Newmarket is reissuing an extended version of the pic on seven screens in Seattle in what amounts to a test run. Pic will be released nationally next month, but the pattern will depend on the Seattle perfs.

In other limited releases, Thinkfilm bows “The Story of the Weeping Camel” on two screens in Gotham and Zeitgeist brings “The Corporation” to two screens in San Francisco.

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