‘Skyfall’ Meets ‘Lincoln’ at Box Office: Why Hollywood Is Watching

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Sony's "Skyfall" is looking at $75M in its debut, "Lincoln" just over $1M, but Hollywood is paying close attention to both bows

On the face of it, "Skyfall" and "Lincoln" have little in common when they hit theaters on Friday. One is a high-octane action film expected to garner the biggest box office in the 50-year-history of the James Bond franchise. The other is a talky, slow saga of the country's 16th president that is considered a front-runner in the Academy Awards Best Picture category.

But together they have Hollywood sitting up and taking notice. And with rival studios having cleared out the weekend to avoid Bond's box office, nearly all the attention will be focused on these two films.

"Skyfall," showing at 3,500 theaters, is looking for a $67 million opening weekend, according to Sony, but that's clearly a lowball number. Industry analysts and executives at rival studios say $75 million to $85 million is more likely. And already it's on track to be the first Bond film to crack $600 million overseas.

Also read: James Bond Returns: 007 Things to Know Before Seeing 'Skyfall'

Blockbuster grosses this weekend aren’t the goal for "Lincoln," which will open on just 11 screens. But there will be plenty of attention aimed at DreamWorks' historical drama. An impressive debut would bolster interest in its Nov. 16 nationwide opening and — perhaps more importantly — build on its already growing awards-season momentum.

The pedigree of “Lincoln” is impeccable. Produced by three-time Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy on a budget of $65 million, the screenplay was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), who also co-wrote the script for Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich.” John Williams, who has five Academy Awards, composed the score.

Two-time Best Actor Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis stars as the president and Sally Field as his wife, Mary. David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook and Tommy Lee Jones round out the impressive cast.

Also read: Steven Spielberg Talks 'Lincoln' and Daddy Issues on '60 Minutes

The film is almost certain to bring in a Best Picture nomination, and Day-Lewis is considered a lock to be nominated in the Best Actor category. Spielberg will figure in the Director race, and Jones' scene-stealing turn as unlikely Lincoln ally Thaddeus Stevens will certainly make him a strong contender for the Supporting Actor list. Field could be nominated for Supporting Actress.

"Lincoln" focuses not on the war waged on the Civil War battlefields but on a fight in the House of Representatives in early 1865. It follows a tired, beaten-down Lincoln risking all his political capital to pass the 13th Amendment, calling for the abolition of slavery.

"Skyfall" opens in the U.S. as a blockbuster, with more than $325 million in foreign grosses in hand on a budget estimated at $150 million. On Thursday, the 23rd film in the 50-year-old 007 franchise passed "The Dark Knight Rises" as the U.K.'s biggest film of the year, with $91 million in just 12 days of release.

Daniel Craig has already demonstrated he's the most bankable Bond ever. “Quantum of Solace” grossed $586 million worldwide, while “Casino Royale” topped out at $594 million in 2006. 

And reviews for "Skyfall" have been glowing. Director Sam Mendes has drawn raves, as has the supporting cast — which includes Oscar winners Javier Bardem and Judi Dench — and the script from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and John Logan ("Gladiator"). It has a 93 percent positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, 87 percent on Movie Review Intelligence.

Also read: Why 'Skyfall' Will Be Biggest Bond Ever at the Box Office

"When an action movie gets those kind of reviews," said Phil Contrino, editor-in-chief of Boxoffice.com, "it always translates to box-office success."

"Lincoln" has generated its share of heat, too.

“You don’t have to be in the industry to know that 'Lincoln' is an Oscar contender,”  Contrino told TheWrap. “Its going to be a must-see for a lot of people and its dollars-per-screen average should be huge."

Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology-inspired tale "The Master" posted the year's biggest specialty box-office opening to date, taking in $736,311 from five theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 14. That’s a $147,262 per-screen average for the Weinstein Company release. The movie has since lost box-office steam and has an overall domestic gross of $15.5 million.

Also read: 'Skyfall' Reviews: Is This the Best James Bond Yet?

The "Lincoln" debut won't top that opening, say the analysts, who project a roughly $1.2 million bow, which would be about $110,000 per screen. "Lincoln" is in several key theaters in Los Angeles and New York, and also in Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. 

"We see this opening more in line with some other movies, like 'No Country for Old Men,' or 'Slumdog Millionaire' or 'Million Dollar Baby,'" Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney, which is handling the film, told TheWrap.

The consistent thread in Hollis' comparisons is that all of those won Best Picture honors at the Academy Awards.

"No Country for Old Men" averaged $43,797 on 28 screens in its 2007 debut. "Slumdog Millionaire" averaged $36,002 on 10 screens in 2008 and "Million Dollar Baby" took in about $22.494 from 10 screens in its 2004 bow. Hollis said Disney will be happy with anything in that range.

Also read: 'Lincoln,' 'Life of Pi,' 'Flight' – Do They Really Deserve All That Oscar Fuss?

Over the long haul, "Lincoln" appears to have a good shot at hitting $100 million domestically, the analysts say. That would be better than the last film Spielberg directed, “War Horse,” which took in around $80 million domestically last year on its way to a Best Picture Oscar nomination. It brought in another $100 million abroad.

But the film's slow pace and historical focus could provide a challenge for Fox which is distributing "Lincoln" overseas, where its overall box office success or failure will likely be determined.

“It will be a tough sell overseas” Contrino said. “I don’t see it doing what ‘War Horse’ did, just because of the subject matter.”