‘Iron Man 3' Knocks Tracking Off the Tracks Ahead of Friday's U.S. Rollout

'Iron Man 3' Knocks Tracking Off the Tracks Ahead of Friday's U.S. Rollout

The latest numbers have Marvel sequel opening to $160 million, but no one is too sure about it

Disney's "Iron Man 3" is heading to a massive U.S. opening, but not even the experts are quite sure how big.

Tracking for the past week has had the movie, which stars Robert Downey Jr. as the Marvel superhero, debuting in 4,000-plus theaters at anywhere from $135 million to $160 million. But studio executives, analysts and the tracking services generally agree – once projections reach a certain point, their reliability decreases. And "Iron Man 3' has reached that point.

"Once it gets past $150 million, things start to get screwy," Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap Wednesday.

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The tracking numbers are generated from focus groups, screenings, phone and online canvassing.

"But if almost every person you're polling says they're going to go see it, you have to start to wonder," Bock said. "On the other hand, if you're looking at a $150 million opening, how much do you really have to worry about?"

Talk to top executives at one of the major tracking services — OTX, MarketCast and National Research Group — and they'll tell you that predicting a film's opening gross at the domestic box office is not what their core service is all about. They maintain that the real use of tracking is to measure the effectiveness of marketing weeks out from release, so that adjustments can be made.

Nonetheless, it's those opening figures that draw the most attention.

Disney's head of distribution Dave Hollis agreed that the higher the projections go, the less they can be counted on.

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"It becomes uncharted territory," he told TheWrap, "so it's difficult to be definitive. It makes it feel like last year."

Last year was "The Avengers," in which Downey's Iron Man character was featured, along with a handful of other Marvel superheroes. It posted the biggest box-office opening in history with $207 million in its first three days of release in the U.S. The tracking on that film was comparable to that of "Iron Man 3," with most projections in the $160 million range.

Most analysts don't see "Iron Man 3" pulling that sort of shocker, and Bock thinks it will land at around $165 million for the three days — or go higher.

It already has grossed a staggering $307 million overseas since opening in most of the world last week, and the other tea leaves look strong. Online ticket broker Fandango says 86 percent of its sales this week have been for "Iron Man 3." Three days before its opening, it had 14 million "likes" on Facebook, far more than the 1.3 million that "The Avengers" had.

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"It has a lot of the same ingredients – that huge Marvel fan base, momentum, generally great reviews (85 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes) and it's PG-13," Bock said. "But to me, ‘The Avengers’ felt more like a cultural phenomenon.

"'Iron Man 3' does have the advantage of following that success of 'Avengers,' though," he said, "so who knows?”

No one, not even the experts, it seems.