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‘Gone Girl,’ ‘Annabelle’ in Dead Heat at Weekend Box Office

Summer popcorn season seems like a distant memory.

After flooding multiplexes with cinematic confections pegged at teenagers, studios are finally offering up more substantive fare geared at adults. “Gone Girl” and “Annabelle,” two R-rated films designed to attract mature audiences, barrel into theaters this weekend in a neck-in-neck race for first place.

Look for “Gone Girl” to maintain a slight edge over the competition with a debut of $25 million from roughly 3,013 locations, while “Annabelle” should bow to $23 million from 3,155 venues. The studios behind the two films are being more conservative and predicting premieres in the $20 million range, while analysts are more bullish on “Gone Girl’s” prospects, projecting a debut of $30 million.

“It’s a tough weekend to call,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “[‘Gone Girl’] is going to gain momentum after it starts screening Thursday and the conversation blows up on Twitter and Facebook. People are going to want to see it so they don’t get left out.”

The weekend’s other wide release, “Left Behind,” should generate less than $10 million in receipts when it hits 1,800 screens. Freestyle Releasing is distributing the movie and targeting the same faith-based crowd that made “God’s Not Dead” a hit for the company earlier this year and turned “Left Behind” and its vision of the Rapture into a publishing phenomenon.

“Gone Girl” also has literary origins. The film arrives with legions of fans of Gillian Flynn’s twisty best-seller, and it doesn’t hurt that Ben Affleck is hot off his Oscar-winning success with “Argo.” There’s also the David Fincher factor. The “Social Network” auteur is back behind the camera, but unlike his last pulpy outing, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” which cost a hefty $90 million to make, and only did a $232.6 million of business globally, “Gone Girl” represents a more economical investment. Twentieth Century Fox and New Regency produced the picture for $61 million, and analysts believe that strong reviews and word of mouth should help the film burn brightly for weeks instead of starting hot and fading fast.

“This is the type of film that needs to be looked at as a marathon runner,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It will have a lot of playability no matter what other films come along.”

Like “Gone Girl,” “Annabelle” arrives in theaters with a core group of fans. The horror film about a possessed doll is a spin-off from last summer’s breakout hit, “The Conjuring,” which generated a robust $318 million worldwide. New Line backed the $6.5 million film, which will likely make back its production budget threefold in a single weekend. If its debut is in line with projections, it will be only the second horror film this year to premiere to north of $20 million after “The Purge: Anarchy.”

“That connection to ‘The Conjuring’ is going to have this play as close to a sequel as possible,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They’re doing the right things. It’s got demonic possession and it’s based on a true story and those are the only things working in horror right now.”

If pre-sales are any indication, “Gone Girl” will indeed pull ahead in the final tally. Fandango reports that the film is responsible for 66% of weekend pre-sales and is pacing similarly to “Gravity,” which opened last year to a stunning $55.8 million. That number seems far beyond “Gone Girl’s” reach given its R-rating, dark subject matter and the fact that it will not be showing in 3D and Imax, which carry surcharges. It does indicate that the film is catching on at a pivotal moment, however. “Annabelle” and “Left Behind” represent 13% and 8% of sales, respectively.

One wrinkle for all of the films hitting theaters is that Yom Kippur takes place on Friday and Saturday, which could suppress the box office results of major cities like New York and Los Angeles that have larger Jewish communities.

In terms of limited releases, Warner Bros. will unveil “The Good Lie,” a drama about the lost boys of Sudan with Reese Witherspoon, in 461 theaters, many of them in suburban areas. The hope is to generate word-of-mouth while building an audience organically. The film could do more than $2 million worth of business.

Also going slow is “Men, Women & Children,” Jason Reitman’s examination of the isolating influence of social networking and technology. Paramount opened the film in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday and will expand to 20 cities by the following Friday.

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