Matt Damon’s ‘The Martian’ Set to Rocket to $45 Million Debut

Despite star’s comments on gay actors, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic eyes big opening with relatively little competition

Director Ridley Scott‘s “The Martian” is being buffeted by some powerful media crosswinds as the sci-fi space saga starring Matt Damon prepares to blast off in its nationwide box-office debut Friday.

Tracking suggests that “The Martian” will open between $45 million and $50 million, though distributor 20th Century Fox sees it orbiting closer to $40 million. Either total would be light years ahead of its rivals and easily give it the No. 1 spot domestically.

The $110 million production will be in a hefty 3,826 theaters, and roughly two-thirds of those will offer 3D.

If the PG-13 thriller overperforms — a possibility given the massive coverage of NASA’s discovery of water on Mars — it could challenge the record for an October opening set by “Gravity” with $55.7 million on this weekend in 2013.

Of course, Damon drew the wrong kind of attention in an interview in which he seemed to advise gay actors to keep their sexuality under wraps. Will the scientists’ news or the actor’s comments affect the box office? “The first could help,” Fox distribution chief Chris Aronson told TheWrap Tuesday, “and the second won’t hurt.”

The only other wide opener is Lionsgate’s R-rated drug war thriller “Sicario,” starring Emily Blunt, Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin. After earning $2.5 million in two weeks of limited release, director Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar hopeful is projected to finish between $8 million and $10 million from roughly 2,500 locations.

Sony is rolling out the Robert Zemeckis-directed high-wire thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in more than 440 IMAX theaters on Wednesday. That’s comparable to the strategy employed by Universal with the mountain-climbing epic “Everest,” which took in roughly $7 million in its giant screen run ahead of its $13 million wide opening last weekend. It also means that “The Martian” won’t benefit from IMAX screens.

The PG-rated “The Walk” is the story of French daredevil Philippe Petit and his tightrope walk across two towers of New York’s World Trade Center skyscraper in 1974. One of the reasons Sony opted for the IMAX and Premium Large Format early run, designed to build buzz as much its grosses, is that the film’s spectacular panoramas are a natural for giant screens.

Last week’s No. 1 film, Sony Animation’s “Hotel Transylvania 2,” looks like the best bet for second and will land at around $24 million if it can keep half its first week audience.

Also worth watching will be the second weeks for Universal’s “Everest,” which went with the unusual IMAX-only early run prior to its wide opening, and the horror film “The Green Inferno.”

Eli Roth‘s cannibal tale was marketed and distributed with a unique scheme designed to target only fans in a narrow segment of the horror audience by Jason Blum‘s BH Tilt.

But “The Martian” is looking to dominate the weekend. Reviews are very strong (93 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes), and on Twitter it’s pacing ahead of “Interstellar,” which opened to $47 million last year, and “Gravity,” which saw a major social media surge just prior to its opening.

Scott’s last sci-fi film “Prometheus” was a hit for Fox, opening to $51 million and taking in $400 million globally in 2012, but 2013’s “The Counselor” and last year’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” failed to break out.

Damon’s last sci-fi film was Neill  Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” which opened to $23 million and grossed $93 million in 2013.