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‘Aquaman,’ ‘Mary Poppins’ Set to Lead Most Crowded Christmas Box Office in Years

With no ”Star Wars“ on the horizon, all the studios are sending in blockbusters this holiday season

The first round of opening weekend tracking numbers has arrived, and Warner Bros./DC’s “Aquaman” and Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” are projected to top what is set to be the most crowded and competitive Christmas movie season in years.

That’s because for the first time since 2014, there won’t be a “Star Wars” film lording over the December slate and forcing the rest of Hollywood to keep their end-of-year releases at a safe distance. Instead, this Christmas will see every studio try to stake out a different demographic, from big-budget blockbusters trying to gain four-quadrant support to musicals and inspirational biopics that will try to attract women and older audiences.

But it’s “Aquaman” that is projected to lead the pack with a $70-80 million opening from Friday to Christmas Day on Tuesday. While that would be lower than the $93.8 million three-day opening for “Justice League,” the film has the potential to overcome that film’s disappointing $657.9 million global total in the long run, as the post-Christmas season will give the film several weeks to leg out.

There’s also the chance that opening weekend projections could increase over the next three weeks if pre-release buzz remains as strong as the initial social media reactions from early press screenings. While the review embargo still hasn’t dropped, critics are saying on Twitter that “Aquaman” is a strong return to form for DC, comparing it in terms of quality to last year’s summer hit “Wonder Woman.”

But the success of “Aquaman” and DC might be trouble for “Bumblebee,” the spinoff that Paramount is counting on to revitalize the “Transformers” series. “Bumblebee” is expected to compete with “Aquaman” for the 18-34 male demographic, and is currently projected for a $40 million launch. While that would be a decent start, it would mean that the film would have to leg out even harder to truly prove that the “Transformers” series has new life.

The last installment in the “Transformers” series, “The Last Knight,” grossed $605 million worldwide, less than half of the $1.1 billion that the previous film, “Age of Extinction,” made in 2014. With their top franchise struggling, Paramount, under new CEO Jim Gianopulos, has taken an approach quite similar to Marvel Studios’ winning formula of giving franchise films to indie directors.

Enter Travis Knight, longtime director of acclaimed stop-motion animated films like “Kubo and the Two Strings.” At CinemaCon and other events, Knight promised that “Bumblebee” would give “Transformers” a more character-driven approach, something that the film’s trailers have emphasized by showing the relationship between the film’s titular Autobot and her human friend, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Only time will tell to see if that leads to stronger reviews and word-of-mouth, and whether that will be enough to stem the tide against “Aquaman.”

Disney, meanwhile, is looking to cap off a mammoth 2018 with something different than Jedis and Sith Lords. Two days before “Aquaman” is released, the top studio in Hollywood today will release “Mary Poppins Returns,” a sequel to the classic 1964 Julie Andrews musical. It is projected to earn $55-60 million from its opening day through Christmas.

Of all the Christmas releases, “Mary Poppins” might be the one that has the longest legs, even if “Aquaman” has a bigger opening. Last year, analysts were stunned by the long-lasting success of “The Greatest Showman,” which opened poorly in the shadow of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” with $13.4 million but went on to make $174.3 million domestically thanks to female and older audiences, with the latter demographic turning up in January several weeks after the film’s release. “Poppins” could do even better, as it will have name recognition with generations of moviegoers who have seen the film over the past 54 years.

Other films being released during the Christmas season include Robert Zemeckis’ true-story inspirational tale “Welcome to Marwen,” which is being distributed by Universal, STX’s Jennifer Lopez rom-com “Second Act,” Sony’s Christmas Day release “Holmes and Watson” starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and Fox’s “Once Upon A Deadpool,” a PG-13 cut of “Deadpool 2” with new, Christmas-themed footage featuring Ryan Reynolds and Fred Savage.