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Christmas Box Office: ‘The Interview’ Eyes Strong Ticket Sales in Limited Release

The Christmas box office for Sony’s “The Interview” will offer a case study on whether all publicity is actually good publicity.

Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” finale and Disney’s “Into the Woods” should battle for the top slot for the holiday weekend in the U.S. But the key question for many will be how the James Franco-Seth Rogen comedy delivers in limited release at several hundred independent theaters.

Sony could possibly see four-day grosses of about $3 million for “The Interview.” The studio is probably going to be handicapped by the theaters in which it’s playing, which lack the capacity of the major chains, and by having told the world on Dec. 17 that it wasn’t going to release the comedy at all.

Still, early reports indicate strong ticket sales for the theaters releasing the film, which is coming into the market with a consumer awareness unmatched in recent history.

Indeed, “The Interview” saga has the earmarks of a movie itself —  a massive hack attack on the studio and threats of a 9/11-style attack by a shadowy hacker group, followed by Sony pulling the release, President Obama rebuking the studio and a scrappy group of indies willing to play the movie despite a looming VOD release.

“The Interview,” which was initially going to play on about 3,000 U.S. screens, is coming into the market with mixed reviews. It has a 52% “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator site — but the curiosity factor has probably been elevated significantly due to the barrage of recent news coverage.

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Fox Searchlight’s Reese Witherspoon awards contender “Wild” offers an illustration of strong performance by a recent limited release. It started with $608,000 at 21 theaters on Dec. 5-7, then expanded to 116 on Dec. 12-14, taking $1.53 million, and went wider to 1,061 on Dec. 19-21, pulling in $4.1 million.

If “The Interview” can do per-screen business similar to the second weekend of “Wild” — with a solid per screen average of $13,198 — and gets over 200 locations, then it could reach around $3 million.

It’s a downbeat ending for 2014 for major exhibitors, who are angry over Sony’s plans for an imminent VOD release, though details are not yet locked down. The top theater chains have long opposed collapsing windows on releases — and studios have delivered a long string of prominent releases this year that failed to meet expectations, leading to a 5% decline in U.S. box office.

The second weekend of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is likely to lead with somewhere around $30 million to $35 million, with Disney’s “Into the Woods” coming in second in the $27 million to $29 million range from 2,440 theaters.

“Five Armies” grossed $9 million on Monday, leaving the New Line-MGM tentpole with $98 million after six days in the U.S. The “Hobbit” finale has already grossed $269 million overseas and should dominate international moviegoing.

“Into the Woods,” which has a relatively modest $50 million budget, has a star-studded cast including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine. It also has plenty of recognition from Stephen Sondheim’s musical having been staged for well over two decades.

Universal-Legendary’s “Unbroken” is looking at a four-day opening in the $17 million to $19 million range at 3,120 North American theaters. Directed by Angelina Jolie, the film stars Jack O’Connell as Olympian and war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 97.

Paramount’s Mark Wahlberg drama “The Gambler,” a remake of the 1974 James Caan movie, will not break the bank. Tracking shows that the film, opening at approximately 2,400 locations, should gross $10 million to $12 million for the four days. The film’s budget is $25 million, so “The Gambler” could break even eventually for the studio.

The Weinstein Co. is opening Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” in a moderate release. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz star in the 1960s-set story of the Walter Keane paintings.

Paramount’s also launching civil rights drama “Selma” at 19 locations in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. The film, which has become an awards season frontrunner, will expand nationwide on Jan. 9.

The film’s Rotten Tomato score is 100%.

Warner Bros. has a four-screen launch for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper. The locations include ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

UPDATE, 7:03 p.m. PST – Sony domestic distribution chief Rory Bruer reports that “The Interview” will play in over 300 U.S. theaters.

UPDATE, 9:05 p.m. PST – Alamo Drafthouse reports that it “completely sold out” nearly half of all their showtimes across the 17 locations.

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