'Awake' arrives with eyes open

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MGM will try to make the most of the first open playing field for some time this weekend as it opens the Hayden Christensen-Jessica Alba starrer "Awake" in more than 2,000 venues.

The Lion recently pounced on the opportunity to slot the Weinstein Co. film during December's first frame after topper Harvey Weinstein noticed that no other film would be opening wide this session.

"Harvey decided he wanted to take this date (about) a month ago," MGM distribution president Clark Woods said.

The weekend represents the first such frame since distributors cleared a path for the May 18 bow of "Shrek the Third."

"Awake" revolves around the romantic relationship between the two leads and a heart surgery needed by Christensen's character. Early reviews for the film have been a bit iffy, but "Awake" targets a youthful audience and should prove fairly critic-resistant.

Still, "Awake" won't be free from any competition. In fact, it almost certainly won't finish first for the frame.

Disney will be hoping to match at least 50% of its opening Friday-Sunday grosses during the second weekend for the family romancer "Enchanted." That would mean a sophomore session of about $17 million, which could be enough to finish at No. 1 for a second successive weekend.

Expectations for "Awake" are more along the lines of high-single-digit millions, or at most something in the low-double-digits. The film's TV spots home in on its central creative conceit: What would it be like if you were awake during your own operation?

"It's frightening," Woods said. "But it's not a horror film. It's a thriller."

Other films entering their second frames include Sony/Screen Gems' seasonal drama "This Christmas," whose challenge will be to leg it in to crossover grosses after a solid opening of about $18 million built primarily on black support.

Fox's video game adaptation "Hitman" could struggle to reach a 50% hold of its $13.2 million bow, given the fleeting boxoffice loyalties of its core youth base. And MGM/Weinstein Co.'s horror film "The Mist" debuted with just $8.9 million, offering scant reason for optimism about its playability -- though older patrons for the Frank Darabont-helmed Stephen King adaptation could still show up late for the party.

Paramount/Warner Bros.' animated actioner "Beowulf" enters its third weekend, toting a $56.6 million cume and more than $150 million in production costs. A high-profile release because of its availability in 3-D on 700 screens, industryites will be watching for additional evidence of audiences' appetite for such films.

Meanwhile, there also is the recently posed question of whether patrons remain hungry for moviegoing.

Nine of the past 10 weekends have underperformed the same frame from last year. Even the $49.1 million rung up by "Enchanted" during the five-day Thanksgiving session couldn't keep the frame from marking a downtick.

The disappointing fall boxoffice has started to knock the stuffing out of 2007's year-to-date industry gains. A torrid summer build on solid successes with sequels and other popcorn fare by Labor Day had shaped an 8% uptick compared with the same portion of 2006.

That has been cut to a 5% year-to-date improvement after fall moviegoers collectively rejected a crush of adult-targeted titles and even youth-oriented genres like horror films showed signs of fatigue. The recently dreary domestic receipts have industryites wondering whether holiday comparisons will help or hurt the situation.

For now, attention will focus on whether "Awake" helps stir the somnolent marketplace or represents one further step in a sleepwalk to the finish line for the boxoffice year.

The weekend will compare with a $93.2 million frame in '06, when New Line's "The Nativity Story" was the top new opener with $7.8 million and Warner Bros.' "Happy Feet" finished at No. 1 with $17.5 million during its third session.
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