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‘Express’ approaches station in heated race

WB pic bids to pass 'Incredibles' as top toon

Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express” will make a bid to replace the Disney-Pixar juggernaut “The Incredibles” as the top toon in the land this weekend.

So far, however, “Incredibles” is more than holding its own. “Polar” unspooled Wednesday in 3,650 theaters, and collected $2.6 million for the day, well behind “The Incredibles’ ” $4.5 million.

Also debuting this weekend are New Line’s caper pic “After the Sunset” at 2,819 locations and Rogue’s “Seed of Chucky” at 2,061 venues. Universal is also opening its sequel “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” in 530 theaters before widening it to a saturation pattern next Friday.

Warners’ “Polar,” helmed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, is one of three high-profile toons to debut in as many weeks (Paramount’s “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” bows next Friday), making the November marketplace highly competitive for family fare.

Children’s day out

As demonstrated by Wednesday’s numbers, biz is weak on weekdays during the school year. But in dating “Polar” for the Wednesday launch, Warners hoped to take advantage of Veterans Day, Nov. 15., when many tykes got the day off school.

Warners distrib topper Dan Fellman said, “Approximately 49% of the schools are closed in North America, but that represents 70% of the nation’s business because the major cities have the biggest closings, and about 20% are also closed on Friday.”

With kids free to see movies Thursday, Fellman said he was hoping for a spike that would follow into the weekend. “I think today is going to launch the movie for us,” he said. “Our whole marketing strategy was to start with the sneak (last Saturday) and then have the Wednesday and Thursday set us up with the word of mouth and go into the weekend.”

First tentpole

“Polar,” which carries a $170 million production pricetag and an additional $125 million in P&A, is the first of four tentpoles Warners is hoisting this holiday season, with “Alexander,” “Ocean’s 12” and “The Phantom of the Opera” waiting in the wings.

As for “Incredibles,” Pixar toons have in the past had very shallow second-week drops as adults and teens flock to the pics after family auds dominate the opening weekend. In 2001, “Monsters, Inc.,” for example, dipped just 27% after opening with $62.6 million.

However, “Incredibles” has attracted an opening weekend aud with a larger than normal component of those nonfamily adults and teens, raising the question of whether it will have that aud seg to build on. Either way, pic could fall an especially steep 50% and still post a three-day gross of $35 million.

“Although it will be a very competitive weekend, I think we’ll be No. 1 again,” Disney distrib prexy Chuck Viane said.

Adult fare

As the kidpics duke it out, the adult market is being sliced and diced by a bevy of pics, led by New Line’s Brett Ratner crime pic “After the Sunset.”

“‘Incredibles’ is still an 800-pound gorilla in the marketplace,” New Line distrib prexy David Tuckerman said, “but we felt it was a good — and I hate this word — counterprogrammer.”

Sneaks last week showed the aud for the Pierce Brosnan-Salma Hayek-Woody Harrelson starrer was primarily adults over age 35, and evenly split between men and women.

Universal threw a bit of a monkey wrench into the strategy when it announced it was opening “Bridget Jones,” which is expected to draw strongly among femmes in its limited run this weekend.

U distrib prexy Nikki Rocco said this weekend’s “Bridget” perf is meant to build interest, not necessarily rake in box office. “It’s not about the dollars. It’s about getting a jump on spreading the great word of mouth we’re getting. And there’s no better way to do that than to go out with the film in the top 100 markets.”

Meanwhile, Rogue, the genre arm of Focus Features, is looking to pick up younger adults with its “Seed of Chucky.”

Said Focus distrib chief Jack Foley: “The target is basically the core group of people who embrace these pictures. First of all, it’s your 18-24-year-old genre lover. They’re everywhere, in the suburbs and the urban markets. We know African-American patronage to this film is very high, as well as Hispanics.”

He added he hopes strong interest in slasher pics, as demonstrated by good returns from “The Grudge” and “Saw,” will buoy the fifth installment of the killer doll franchise. The last installment, “Bride of Chucky,” opened to $11.8 million in 1998 and went on to cume $32.4 million domestically.

Oscar hopefuls bow

On the limited side of the biz, the weekend brings two more pics with Oscar hopes. Miramax is unspooling Johnny Depp starrer “Finding Neverland” on 10 screens in Gotham and L.A.

Fox Searchlight debuts “Kinsey” on five screens in those two cities as well. Distrib chief Steve Giulula said the pic will expand rapidly in the coming weeks, moving to roughly 200 screens by Thanksgiving.

Searchlight is also expanding “Sideways” to 144 screens, more than doubling its run. Pic has had a scorching five-figure screen average in its first three weeks, helping it to build a cume of $1.9 million while still playing on less than 100 screens.

Also this weekend, Yash Raj Films will mark the widest release ever for a Bollywood film when it bows musical romance “Veer-Zaara” in 88 theaters.

Other pics debuting this weekend, all on solo Gotham screens, are Thinkfilm’s “Overnight,” Strand’s “Who Killed Bambi?” Palm’s “Bright Future” and First Run’s “La Petite Lili.”

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