Gore and ghosts will be the big story at the domestic box office this weekend, as the sixth installment of Lionsgate’s “Saw” franchise faces off with wide opening of Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity.”
Universal, meanwhile, will seek to counterprogram the pre-Halloween weekend with lighter scary fare, opening the PG-13-rated fantasy film “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” starring John C. Reilly in 2,754 theaters, and Summit hopes to pry away enough of the family audience from Warner’s “Where the Wild Things Are” to successfully premiere Japanese manga movie “Astro Boy.”
Also opening this weekend, Fox Searchlight hopes to get its biopic “Amelia” off the awards-season runway in limited release.
Meanwhile, even though it doesn’t open until next Wednesday, Sony’s “Michael Jackson: This Is It” is already making rumblings at the box office.
Set to be released in more than 3,400 North American venues, with more than 18,000 prints issued worldwide, the documentary about the singer’s final tour preparations already has generated 1,600 sold-out screenings.
According to an insider at Sony, the studio is projecting a five-day total of between $35-$40 million.
As for this weekend, studios are expecting another robust turnout — especially coming off one of the biggest October weekends in box-office history, led by the $32.4 million opening of “Wild Things.”
However, breaking the $30 million barrier for any single entry might be tough this time around.
Since Lionsgate kicked off its venerable, torture-themed “Saw” franchise in 2004, each successive sequel has opened to at least $30 million. But the late introduction of “Paranormal Activity,” which will finally ramp up to 1,950 locations Friday, has introduced a competitive wild card that has tempered Lionsgate’s expectations.
After garnering $19.6 million at 763 locations last weekend, “Paranormal” is being projected take in more than $25 million this weekend.
Primarily marketing its viral phenomenon through social networking and other viral means so far, Paramount made no big TV or outdoor ad buys that would increase the modest $10 million it has spent so far on prints and advertising.
But skewing a bit broader demographically, it’s widely believed that the demonic “Paranormal” will take a bite out of the similarly R-rated “Saw VI.”
For its part, Lionsgate already has plans next year to kick-start its slowing bloodfest, which peaked with “Saw III’s” $165 million worldwide gross in 2006. The studio said it will release “Saw VII” in 3D, a move that will substantially increase the $10 million (give or take) production costs of the most recent “Saw” installments.
However, there is a minimum bar for “Saw VI” to pass over this weekend for that to occur.
“If we end up with at least $20 million, we’ll be talking about ‘Saw VII’ this time next year,” said David Spitz, executive VP and general manager for Lionsgate. “The most important thing right now for us is to keep the franchise alive, and we think we’re going to do that.”
Ironically, Spitz is among a number of former Artisan Entertainment denizens now working at Lionsgate who back in 1999 helped launch the viral phenom that “Paranormal” is often compared to: “The Blair Witch Project.”
“We witnessed it. It was a phenomenon, but the timing of this one isn’t as great for us,” he quipped.
Meanwhile, hoping to dodge a flurry of R-rated scary movies, Universal has modest hopes for “Cirque du Freak,” with premiere projections coming in at or below $10 million for the film. The film cost about $40 million to make and was co-financed with Relativity Media.
“If it comes in with double digits, that will be a win for us,” conceded Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco.
Likewise, Summit, which co-produced “Astro Boy” with Japan’s Imagi Studios for $65 million, is shooting for the $10 million benchmark, with bigger opportunities being scoped in the Far East.
Expectations for the PG-rated animated film are being tempered by the still robust presence of “Wild Things,” which would still draw in the high teens even if projections of a 50 percent drop hold true.
Finally, on the specialty-division side, Fox Searchlight will premiere “Amelia” in 818 theaters. The movie, which stars Hilary Swank as the doomed title character, alongside Ewan McGregor, Richard Gere and Virginia Madsen, is projected to take in between $5 million-$7 million.