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Box office vets holding ground

Only two wide-release studio films bowing

Multiplexes could be chilly for new wide releases this weekend, as Oscar-nominated fare tries to heat up with auds as awards night nears…and don’t forget about the Super Bowl.

Only two wide-release studio pics will be bowing: Universal’s multigenerational chick pic “Because I Said So,” a counterprogramming attempt against Super Bowl Sunday, and Sony’s spooky paranormal pic “The Messengers.”

Away from the majors, weekend is also a test for specialty unit Picturehouse — the distrib of Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language artsy fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Picturehouse goes for its widest expansion ever, putting “Pan’s” in 1,082 engagements in North America.

Picturehouse said it will move the movie into suburban, commercial theaters and smaller towns.

Warner Bros., meantime, sends its slow-rolling war epic “Letters From Iwo Jima” from 415 to 720 theaters, trying to gain traction from four noms (including best pic and director Clint Eastwood).

So far keeping a low profile, “Iwo Jima” has hit $5.6 million. Its biz was up 38% last weekend.

Period piece “Pan’s,” meantime, has proved one of the few specialty success stories this season, luring arthouse auds as well as fantasy-loving geeks.

Pic has so far taken in $17.7 million, and is nommed for six Oscars.

Other Oscar-nommed pics looking to pick up further biz will be best pic contenders “The Queen” (Miramax) and “Babel” (Paramount Vantage). Both saw healthy spikes in ticket sales last weekend on the steam of their awards buzz.

But not all expansions of Oscar pics have been clicking so far.

Par last weekend moved its bigscreen musical “Dreamgirls” — which has eight noms, but is not a best pic contender — up to 2,785 locations. But the pic’s biz dropped about 16%, suggesting it could be hitting a wall.

And Sony Classics took Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” — which has one nom for lead Penelope Cruz — to the highest number of Stateside screens ever for the Spanish helmer, 689. But the pic’s per-playdate average dipped to $1,655.

Among new releases, Gold Circle’s “Because I Said So,” starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore, will roll out on 2,526 screens.

Keaton has become reliable B.O. bait of late playing mothers to wacky broods: Last December’s reasonably budgeted holiday pic “The Family Stone” roped in $60 million for Fox.

And 2003’s “Something’s Gotta Give” nearly cracked $125 million in its domestic theatrical release for Sony.

Moore’s biggest pic to date has been 2001’s “The Princess Diaries,” a $108.2 million pic. Her last project, “American Dreamz,” scored just $7.2 million last year.

Rolling to 2,528 theaters as the frame’s widest new release, “Messengers” is the latest from Asian horrormeisters Oxide and Danny Pang (“The Eye”).

But the newcomers will have stiff competish. Holdovers “The Pursuit of Happyness” — which has a lead actor nominee in Will Smith — and comedy “Night at the Museum” will continue to drain some serious coin. And Warners relaunched Martin Scorsese’s best pic nominee “The Departed” last weekend as a wide release.

On the specialty circuit, MGM will send the Weinstein Co.’s biopic “Factory Girl” to three screens. Pic stars Sienna Miller as Andy Warhol cohort Edie Sedgwick.

On the foreign front, Sony’s “Pursuit of Happyness” looks likely to dislodge Fox’s “Night at the Museum” from the top slot for the first time in five weeks. “Pursuit,” which has cumed $54.7 million from 15 overseas markets as of Wednesday, opens this weekend in Brazil, France, Holland, Mexico and Spain.

“Pursuit” has the advantages of Smith’s strong track record in foreign markets and his Oscar nomination.

“Night at the Museum” is expanding into Italy and Sweden, but it’s losing screens in the U.K., where several major exhibitors have pulled the comedy in recent days due to Fox’s decision to shorten the DVD release date to 13 weeks after the theatrical release date. (See story, page 1.) Fox Intl. said “Museum,” which finished fifth last weekend in its fifth U.K. frame with $2.3 million at 478 playdates, would still be playing on a significant number of screens.

The U.K. has been the top foreign market for “Museum,” with $39.8 million as of Wednesday.

Besides “Pursuit,” several other Oscar-nommed pics will try to parlay awards buzz into international box office coin this weekend, including Warner’s “Blood Diamond,” expanding to France and Russia; Paramount’s “Dreamgirls,” launching in Germany and the U.K.; Fox’s “The Last King of Scotland” in Australia, Brazil and Scandinavia; and Fox’s “Notes on a Scandal” in the U.K., its first foreign outing.

“Diamond” finished in second last weekend in its German and Brit launches and has cumed about $30 million overseas from 41 markets to go along with a $53 million domestic cume.

Sony’s “Casino Royale” should continue to mint money overseas on the heels of a stellar Chinese launch, with $2.2 million at 470 on Tuesday and Wednesday in the first theatrical run for a James Bond pic in China. Foreign “Casino” cume’s hit $407.6 million and worldwide has topped $573 million.

Sony’s also launching “Click” in South Korea this weekend. The comedy’s already the top overseas grosser among Adam Sandler pics with $96.2 million; worldwide cume is nearly $234 million.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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