U staking its claim on the summer sesh

'Van Helsing' looks to cash in on b'buster slot

This article was updated at 7:39 p.m.

And away we go.

Launching its biggest pic of the year — and the first summer tentpole — Universal opens monster mash “Van Helsing” in 3,574 locations this weekend.

Pic, which U spent $160 million to produce and many more millions more to market, marks the start of the summer money season. It’s the first film to bow in a five-week period when one studio after another will make expensive gambles with pics whose total production and marketing costs will most likely cross the $200 million mark.

It’s the summer blockbuster equivalent of a murderer’s row: “Van Helsing” is followed by “Troy” from Warner Bros. on May 14, “Shrek 2” from DreamWorks on May 19, “The Day After Tomorrow” from 20th Century Fox on May 28 and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” from Warners June 4.

The rest of June, July and August is no less competitive.

Warners will counterprogram “Van Helsing” this weekend with “New York Minute,” the first theatrical feature starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Pic will unspool in 3,006 theaters. The frame’s limited releases include fast-food-bashing docu “Super Size Me,” which IDP will open with 41 playdates in seven cities.

But it’s “Van Helsing” that’s the most closely scrutinized. Thanks in part to helmer Stephen Sommers’ “Mummy” pictures, the first weekend in May has become the official kickoff to the lucrative summer season. “The Mummy” opened May 7, 1999, with $43.4 million; follow-up “The Mummy Returns” unspooled May 4, 2001, with $68.1 million. Last year, Fox’s “X2” opened May 2 with $85.6 million. The year before, Sony released “Spider-Man” on May 3 and set box office records with its $114.8 million take.

Sony had originally planned to release “Spider-Man 2” this weekend, but a production delay forced the studio to announce last spring it was pushing the sequel to June 30. U leapt at the chance to put “Van Helsing” in the high-profile slot. It also put the pic under a microscope.

Merger measure

Adding attention — and tension –NBC and U plan to consummate their merger on Tuesday, meaning that, fairly or not, the performance of “Van Helsing” will figure large in the backdrop for observers taking measure of the new entity.

U tacked on an additional $10 million on the budget to finish post-production in time for a day-and-date release in 40 territories — and the studio has engineered a host of tie-ins to the pic, including special DVD editions of its classic monster pics, a vidgame, a theme park ride, a direct-to-homevid animation franchise and a possible spinoff TV series for NBC. The success of these projects will hinge greatly on whether “Van Helsing” is deemed a hit or flop.

U says most of these spinoffs didn’t involve risk to the studio — Vivendi Universal Games, for instance, licensed the film and paid to make it. “It all started with the movie and then we managed the business by finding opportunities. That’s our job,” Shmuger said. “It protected downside risk.”

Managing expectations

Given all the high-drama surrounding the release of “Van Helsing” — some reporters have duly noted that the pic starts with the famous U logo going up in flames — Universal execs are carefully managing expectations for its opening weekend, pointing to the strong track record of Sommers in spinning out summer box office hits. Studio expects “Van Helsing” to play somewhere between the two “Mummy” openings.

Without offering any prediction, Shmuger said, “Stephen’s movies play very broadly, with equal males and females, though there is a slight male skew. When you stitch up all the possible people who will like Stephen’s movies, you end up with big grosses.”

Shmuger added that unlike “Mummy Returns,” U is working with a largely unknown property, compared with franchises like the “Spider-Man” and “Harry Potter” sequels. “Van Helsing” is not “an established title; it’s not a sequel. We are doing all the heavy lifting,” he said.

‘Mean’ alternative

Warners planned to counterprogram “Van Helsing” with its “New York Minute.” But it may find stronger competition coming from Paramount’s “Mean Girls,” which will play for its second week.

“We’re going to play a bit younger than either of those movies. We have our own demographic that we are going to corral,” Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman said.

After opening “Mean” with $24.4 million, Par is hoping to hold onto enough business to keep “Mean” in the mid-teens.

Last year, Disney counterprogrammed “X2” with “The Lizzie McGuire Movie,” netting $17 million in its first three days.

“Super Size Me,” in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock documents what happened to him when he ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days, will finally see whether the storm of media it kicked up starting at Sundance translates into B.O.

Other exclusives unspooling this weekend include Lantern Entertainment’s “Seeing Other People,” which opens on four screens in Gotham and L.A.; Miramax’s “Valentin,” which will bow on two screens in Gotham and L.A.; and Innovation’s mail-order bride pic “A Foreign Affair,” which will debut on 10 screens in L.A., Phoenix and Grand Rapids, Mich.