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Toons to tussle

'Incredibles,' 'Polar' prep for battle

The November toon stakes are on.

Walt Disney bows Pixar’s “The Incredibles” in a super-saturated 3,933-theater release today, and Warner Bros. opens “The Polar Express” on Wednesday.

Already, the second-guessers are coming out, questioning Warner’s choice of release dates for the Tom Hanks-Robert Zemeckis pic.

With much more modest ambitions, Paramount also delivers “Alfie” today in 2,215 locations.

Industry estimates of how “Incredibles” may perform don’t get much more specific than “huge.” The mark to beat is $62.6 million — what Disney and Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” the current biggest-bowing November toon, drew when it opened in 2001, also on the first weekend of the month.

“I don’t know if we will, but I want to beat that number,” said Disney distrib chief Chuck Viane.

“Incredibles” is expected to dominate the family market. Online ticket seller Fandango said “Incredibles” accounted for 57% of all of its sales since Monday. And it noted a higher-than-normal tendency for people to buy groups of four or five tickets, suggesting that families are planning group outings to theaters this weekend.

Dominance of the family seg has implications for the fate of “Polar Express.” When Warners opens that pic next week, family auds will be forced to choose between the Christmas tale and superhero laffer.

The pics will first go head-to-head Saturday, when Warners sneaks “Polar” in about 500 locations for one 4 p.m. matinee.

The toon crunch continues Nov. 19, when Par bows “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

Other entries

Also sneaking this weekend is New Line caper pic “After the Sunset” at about 1,000 theaters on Saturday.

Beyond just families, “Incredibles” is expected to pull in a broad four-quadrant aud. Viane said about 250 exhibs had informed him that they would be running midnight shows tonight, long after bedtime for most tykes. “And those are just of the ones that have told us,” he said.

Also broadening interest: 20th Century Fox will run the first trailer for “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” on selected “Incredibles” screens.

Par originally skedded “Alfie,” starring Jude Law, for Oct. 22. It moved the date after Fox Searchlight was planning to go wide nationally with “I Heart Huckabees,” which also stars Law, that weekend. “Alfie” marks the third of six Law releases for 2004, with “Closer,” “The Aviator,” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” still to come.

Meanwhile, Universal is adding 452 runs for “Ray,” the top-grossing film this mid-week. Expansion will bring the Ray Charles biopic’s theater count up to 2,458.

“It was always our strategy to expand it into the smaller markets with the benefits of strong word of mouth and phenomenal exit polls,” said U distrib topper Nikki Rocco. Those factors, she said, will hopefully mean mild second-week erosion on “Ray’s” grosses.

In the limited release realm, Paramount Classics will bow its Jay-Z concert pic “Fade to Black” on 170 screens in 14 cities.

And Fox Searchlight is expanding “Sideways” in its third weekend to 66 screens, up 50 from last week. Alexander Payne-helmed pic has posted five-figure screen averages in its first two weekends.

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