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‘Payne,’ ‘W.’ join box office ballot

'Sex,' 'Secret Life of Bees' also swarm theaters

The film biz enters uncharted territory this weekend as Lionsgate unspools Oliver Stone’s George Bush biopic “W.” in 2,030 theaters across the country.

Historically, presidential biopics are made after a politician has left office.

Opinions are divided as to how “W.” — toplining Josh Brolin as Bush — will play. One school of thought says curiosity alone will fill theater seats, while the other questions whether people want to see a film about an unpopular president in his waning days.

Even if it works, “W.” probably would have trouble winning the weekend, as Fox’s Mark Wahlberg crime actioner “Max Payne” should place No. 1 on the strength of young males.

Based on the vidgame, “Max Payne” was directed by John Moore.

Intense actioner could score one of the best openings of the fall — if tracking is any indication — as well as bring Fox out of its box office slump.

“Max Payne” also stars Mila Kunis and Beau Bridges, and revolves around a cop determined to get revenge for the brutal murder of his family and partner.

Frame’s other two new entries are Fox Searchlight’s female-skewing “The Secret Life of Bees,” based on the bestselling book, and Summit Entertainment’s R-rated teen comedy “Sex Drive.”

“Bees,” toplining Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah, opens in 1,592 theaters. The Searchlight pic also stars Alicia Keys and Paul Bettany, and was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

“Bees” screened well at the Toronto Film Fest, and is earning OK reviews.

“Sex Drive” is the least buzzed-about title among new films. Starring Josh Zuckerman, Amanda Crew, James Marsden and Clarke Duke, pic revolves around an 18-year-old who sets out on a cross-country trip, hoping to lose his virginity.

Tracking for “W.” varied widely depending upon the service. Lionsgate has aggressively been advertising the pic, including buying up ad time during the presidential debates.

Nearly all the news channels, as well as latenight talkshows, have done pieces on “W.,” which also stars Elizabeth Banks, Thandie Newton, James Cromwell and Richard Dreyfuss.

Stone shot the movie in less than two months in order to be in theaters before the Nov. 4 election. The filmmaker, who has often been criticized for his interpretation of history, says he went to great lengths to make “W.” an accurate portrayal. He’s made two previous presidential biopics: “JFK” and “Nixon.”

So far, “W.” is receiving mixed notices.

“W.” won’t be the only politically minded film in the marketplace. There’s also Bill Maher’s docu “Religulous,” also from Lionsgate, which heads into its third weekend with a cume of $7.4 million. It’s on track to score the best domestic gross of the year so far for a documentary.

So far, the domestic box office hasn’t been hurt by the withering economy. In fact, summer box office revenues were the best ever, and fall revenues are running at record levels as well.

That certainly doesn’t mean that each and every film does well. While the Oct. 10-12 weekend was way up, several films stumbled, including Ridley Scott’s Leonardo DiCaprio-Russell Crowe starrer “Body of Lies” and Universal’s sports drama “The Express.”

Winner of the weekend was Disney family holdover “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” which could have another strong sesh and possibly place No. 2. (“Body of Lies” won both Tuesday and Wednesday at the box office.)

On the specialty side, Magnolia opens Barry Levinson’s star-studded “What Just Happened” in 36 runs. Film had a difficult time finding a distrib, with Magnolia ultimately agreeing to release the film for sister division 2929.

Disney opens sports docu “Morning Light,” about open-ocean sailing, in 55 runs. Anchor Bay opens “Flashbacks of a Fool” in two theaters, while Regent unspools “Tru Loved” in two runs in Gotham and Chicago.

On the foreign front, “W.” won’t debut until next weekend so the biggest splash should come from Fox’s day- and-date launch of “Max Payne” in 32 markets including Australia, Holland, Scandinavia, Spain and Taiwan.

Actioners usually show considerable traction in foreign markets with U’s “Wanted” going past $200 million overseas. Par’s vidgame-based “Lara Croft” pics performed respectably in international markets with over $230 million combined.

A pair of action pics that are still early in their runs will see targeted expansions with “Death Race” opening in Brazil, France, Hungary and South Korea and “Eagle Eye” going into Holland, Japan and the U.K. “Death” has cumed $21 million overseas while “Eye” has $33 million.

“Tropic Thunder” will launch in Belgium and France with $56 million banked so far from 35 markets. As with many other American comedies, foreign grosses for “Tropic” have been decent rather than stellar and probably won’t match the $110 million domestic total.

By contrast, family audiences should continue flocking to “Wall-E,” which opens in Italy with $239 million banked overseas. Final market for the Disney-Pixar toon will be Japan on Dec. 5.

“Burn After Reading” expands to Australia and the U.K. with a $21 million international cume from 11 markets.