Pix try to scare up B.O.

Fright night fight: 'Hide' vs.'Dark'

The box office goes high- and low-brow this weekend, as two frighteners debut while Oscar-nominated specialty pics labor to collect kudos nom coin.

Debuting at 3,005 locations, 20th Century Fox’s “Hide and Seek” will compete for scare fans with Lions Gate’s “Alone in the Dark,” unspooling at 2,124 theaters. Both pics are rated R.

Meanwhile, coming off seven Oscar noms, Warner Bros. expands Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” to 2,010 theaters from 147. Fox Searchlight’s “Sideways,” also cited five times by the Acad, is lifting its run from 696 to 1,694.

“The Aviator,” which claimed the most noms at 11, was already playing in wide release, but the Miramax and Warners pic is padding its theater count by 242 for a total of 2,503. Miramax also is expanding “Finding Neverland,” nommed seven times, by 389 screens, bringing total to 1,258.

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Oscar nom buzz

Expansions rep the most aggressive of the attempts by studios to capitalize on Tuesday’s Academy Award nominations. The next five weekends before the Feb. 27 kudocast are a huge opportunity for the nominees to pad their cumes. Weekend also reps the best chance for these pics to broaden their auds beyond the mainly older, specialty crowds in big cities.

Warners intentionally held back the run on “Baby,” first released on eight screens Dec. 15, so it arrives today in most cities as a nearly new release.

“The other contenders have been in the marketplace for quite a while and have also been out there in a wide pattern,” said Warners distrib topper Dan Fellman. “For us, it’s like the first time around. We’ve waited quite patiently for the nominations to come out and, obviously, we’ve done quite well in that area. It’s a big leap, but we think we now have the momentum and we’ve created an anticipation factor that I think will show at the box office.”

Big bump for ‘Aviator’

Playing nationally since Christmas, “The Aviator” is more of a known quantity, but the Oscar noms should boost aud interest in the title. Miramax doesn’t release midweek daily grosses, but industry estimates for Wednesday put “Aviator” at or near the top of the box office chart with a take around $800,000. Closest competitor was Revolution and Sony’s “Are We There Yet?” with receipts of $787,000.

Going into its 15th week, “Sideways” has been playing even longer in theaters. But with the Acad boosting awareness of the Alexander Payne-helmed pic — it too has seen big gains on its Tuesday and Wednesday daily grosses — Fox Searchlight distrib chief Steve Gilula said, “This will be the biggest weekend by far. There’s a large chunk of America that’s just become aware of the film.”

TV ad campaign

Searchlight is bolstering extensive media coverage with the first national TV ad buy for the film. “The new audience are adults who are regular moviegoers who follow the awards but are not necessarily avid readers,” Gilula said. “It’s largely an over-30 crowd, but they’re more likely to choose what they see based on television.”

As for the two new releases, weekend presents a rare occasion when two pics vying for a very similar aud open against each other.

“Hide and Seek” features Robert De Niro as the father of Dakota Fanning, who has a scary imaginary friend. It’ll vie for fright fans with Lions Gate’s vidgame adaptation “Alone in the Dark,” which stars Christian Slater as a paranormal investigator who battles an evil, spooky power.

High tide for ‘Hide’

Tracking on “Hide and Seek,” which was produced for around $30 million, has been strong, making it the odds-on favorite to win the weekend with an opening industry estimates put in the mid to high teens.

“It looks pretty strong,” said Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder. Particularly encouraging, he said, is interest among females under 25, who have been the driving force of previous hit thrillers such as last fall’s “The Grudge.”

“Dark,” which has been marketed as more of a monster horror pic, is expected to draw a slightly more male aud that could generate an opening in the high single digits.

Last week’s opening of Ice Cube family laffer “Are We There Yet?” was hampered by a blizzard in much of the eastern half of the country, so this week’s drop should be limited. If it declines 40%, pic would gross around $11 million.

Other Oscar-contending pics expanding this weekend include U’s “Ray,” which is going into 510 theaters, up from 293, and MGM and United Artists’ “Hotel Rwanda,” which adds 98 screens, bringing its total to 417. Fine Line is boosting “Vera Drake,” in its 15th week of release, to 68 screens, an addition of 16.

Also expanding this weekend is Lions Gate’s “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” which moves from one to 24 screens, and Miramax’s “The Chorus,” which bumps from two to 20 engagements.

Also this weekend, MGM opens thriller “Fascination” on 10 screens, and Disney debuts its underwater Imax doc “Aliens of the Deep” on 27 of the bigger-than-big screens.