Can political might thwart Night fright?

Big bows set to make a thrilling B.O.

This article was updated at 9:30 p.m.

Is there such a thing as too many thrills?

Touchstone’s historical thriller “The Village,” the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, unspools ultrawide at 3,730 theaters and Paramount’s remake of political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” starring Denzel Washington, bows at 2,867 locations. Meanwhile, Matt Damon starrer “The Bourne Supremacy” will be seeking to hold well after its surprisingly large launch last weekend.

Also bowing in the frame is New Line’s stoner comedy “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” at 2,135 venues and Universal’s kidpic “Thunderbirds” at 2,055 playdates.

The scheduling of “Manchurian” against “The Village” (both, as it happens, list Scott Rudin as a producer) has raised eyebrows in the industry. Some have called it the most questionable head-to-head skedding since “The Patriot” took on “The Perfect Storm” four years ago.

“This week there’s some truly good competition,” said Disney distrib prexy Chuck Viane.

By almost all estimations, “The Village” will take the top spot at the box office. Shyamalan’s brand of scares has won him a big following; his last pic, Mel Gibson starrer “Signs,” opened with $60.1 million. But “Village” doesn’t have a star like Gibson attached, and industry estimates are in the vicinity of $40 million.

Disney is being incredibly aggressive with the launch. Pic’s 3,730 theaters reps the fifth widest opening ever, trailing only megahits “Shrek 2,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “X2.”

“We’re just responding to the needs of the marketplace and our faith in the film,” said Viane.

Par distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen said the July 30 date was the best available for “Manchurian.” “First off, the picture wasn’t ready any earlier,” he said.

Last week, Par would have gone up against “Bourne,” while next weekend Tom Cruise’s “Collateral” is coming. “You go beyond that, you’re running out of summer play time,” Lewellen said.

Much of “Manchurian’s” media coverage has emphasized its political subject matter, and the studio is hoping to draft off the interest in politics kicked up by the Democratic National Convention.

Lewellen added the studio was looking to open the picture before the crush of political advertising starts in the fall. “The other issue we had was the presidential election. With our TV spots running, you’d have a Kerry spot, you’d have a ‘Manchurian’ spot and then a Bush spot. You couldn’t tell them apart. We were trying to get some separation from that.”

Tracking shows “Manchurian” is likely to open within the range of Washington’s pics. While the films he toplines tend to play well, the biggest opening of his career was “Man on Fire,” which bowed earlier this year with $22.8 million.

“Manchurian” likely will be vying with “Bourne” for the second spot, with both expected to end up in the mid-20s. “It could be a real horse race,” said Lewellen.

Universal’s Nikki Rocco said strong word of mouth and good midweek performances may mean “Bourne” defies the usual 50% sophomore slump on summer pics. But if “Bourne” keeps to the pattern, a 50% drop would mean $26 million-plus for the frame.

The three thrillers could combine for more than $100 million in business in a frame where total box office is typically in the $150 million range. But Viane said, “I’ve always found the marketplace to expand whenever there are good films in it. We’ve done $200 million (on a weekend) twice this summer.”

Meanwhile, “Harold & Kumar” is hoping to steal some young aud members from all three of those pics. Helmer Danny Leiner’s previous pic, “Dude, Where’s My Car?,” bowed with $13.9 million in December 2000. In a more similar play period, “Road Trip” bowed in May 2000 with $15.5 million.

But with such a crowded marketplace, New Line isn’t expecting to top either of those films. Distrib prexy David Tuckerman said the crowded summer meant this crowded weekend was the best date for the film.

“You pick and choose your poisons in the summertime,” he said.

Rocco said U’s “Thunderbirds” could play like “Johnny English,” another imported property from Blighty. Released on July 18 last year, “English” debuted with $9.1 million.

“It’s for that under-12 group. It’s the perfect counterprogramming to ‘The Village,’ ” Rocco said.

Opening in the specialty market are Spike Lee’s latest, “She Hate Me,” which Sony Pictures Classics will debut on 11 screens in Gotham and L.A. Also, Sundance darling “Garden State,” released by Fox Searchlight, unspools on nine on both coasts.

Other new releases include Paramount Classics’ “Intimate Strangers” on five screens, IDP’s “Rosenstrasse,” Pathfinder’s “Gozu” and Strand’s “Proteus.”

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