Art house fare makes itself at home

Third 'Underworld' pic and 'Inkheart' bow, but Oscar faves will assume the spotlight

The weekend could prove watershed for some platforming art films, but neither wide opener is expected to ring up eye-popping sums.

Sony's Screen Gems sends out its action threequel "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," and Warner Bros. unspools the adventure fantasy "Inkheart." Yet one weekend after four new films each grossed $20 million or more for the first time ever during a winter session, both market entrants could fall shy of that total.

Starring Rhona Mitra ("Doomsday") and Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon"), "Lycans" could ring up anywhere from the upper-teen millions to just north of $20 million. Something in that range would have "Lycans" bowing lower than the franchise's first two installments.

The original "Underworld" opened with $21.8 million in 2003 en route to $52 million domestically, and 2006's "Underworld: Evolution" debuted with $26.9 million and rang up a total of $62.3 million domestically.

"Inkheart," starring Brendan Fraser and Paul Bettany, could struggle to reach double-digit millions in the crowded marketplace.

"Business is booming right now, but it's hard to say whether that carries over to this weekend," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said.

Last weekend, the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday frame registered an amazing $231 million in industrywide coin, Nielsen EDI said. That was about $12 million more than collective grosses during the most recent Memorial Day session.

The MLK haul was helped by the fact that each of the frame's wide openers boasted clearly defined audiences. But the sheer number of recent wide releases — seven wide openers during the past two frames, plus a couple of wide expansions — could hamper the latest debutants.

Meanwhile, Warners will be among those seeking signs of sturdy legs on recently expanded prestige titles.

The studio's Clint Eastwood-directed and -toplined "Gran Torino" has enjoyed two strong sessions in wide release after four frames of more limited distribution. But Warners has hopes of greater theatrical glory for what looks to be the most commercially successful Eastwood-helmed release ever, at $77 million domestically and counting.

Elsewhere, Fox Searchlight finally is taking Danny Boyle's surprisingly commercial Indian drama "Slumdog Millionaire" wide with 1,000-plus playdates after several lucrative sessions in limited release; Universal is doing likewise with its political drama "Frost/Nixon." Both will be helped by best picture Oscar nominations.

Several other specialty films also will be looking for further traction as awards-season fame boosts playability and chances for crossover from art houses to mainstream multiplexes.

Also this weekend, Warners returns Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight" to theaters with about 350 playdates. The film has been on DVD since Dec. 9 after grossing almost $1 billion in worldwide boxoffice. (partialdiff)
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