Box Office Preview: Can 'Transformers' Reverse 3D Decline?

 Paramount

Will Paramount's Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- which begins its assault Tuesday night -- become the year's first mega blockbuster in the U.S.?

One thing is clear: The threequel will be the biggest referendum yet on 3D, which is showing sudden signs of fatigue in North America.

This past weekend, only 37% of the domestic grosses for Cars 2 came from 3D screens, an all-time low. Only a few months ago, a studio could count on 55% or 65% of the total gross coming from 3D.

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Taking no chances, Paramount and director Michael Bay have marketed the 3D aspect of Dark of the Moon as much as the movie itself, which returns Shia LaBeouf in the title role.

Paramount vice chair Rob Moore has been out front on the topic since before the start of the downturn, saying the consumer has to be told why they should pay extra.

As a part of the studio's ambitious marketing efforts, Dark of the Moon is rolling out in theaters Tuesday night -- but only in 2,700 3D locations (a mix of digital 3D and Imax theaters). It's yet another way of sparking word-of-mouth and getting people to see Dark of the Moon in 3D.

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In May, the studio teamed with The Hollywood Reporter to host an evening with Bay and James Cameron to talk about how Bay shot the film in 3D. And in recent days, Bay has been urging theater owners to up the 3D experience by not scrimping on certain bulbs. He's also written to fans asking them to choose the more expensive format.

On Wednesday, Dark of the Moon moves into a total of 4,000 theaters, including 2,800 3D sites, as it looks to profit from the lucrative Fourth of July holiday stretch.

The movie has a relatively clear playing field. On Friday, two female-driven pics open: the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts romantic dramedy Larry Crowne and Fox's teen pic Monte Carlo, starring Selena Gomez, Katie Cassidy, Leighton Meester and Cory Monteith.

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Larry Crowne, directed by Hanks, will go after adults, although tracking is relatively soft. Universal is distributing the film on behalf of Hanks' Playtone and Vendome Pictures, which financed and produced the film.

Box office observers say Larry Crowne and Monte Carlo will each gross in the mid-teens for the four-day holiday weekend.

Tracking suggests Dark of the Moon will rake in $150 million to $160 million through the Fourth, which falls on a Monday this year. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earned $200.1 million in its five-day debut in summer 2009, but it's unclear whether the domestic box office has returned to full health and able to support such a big number.

The movie's international prospects are enormous thanks to the success of the first two films and the continued strong appetite for 3D, particularly in such markets as Russia and China.

Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has grossed a massive $750.6 million internationally -- the third biggest title of all time overseas -- compared with a domestic cume of $229.3 million.

Dark of the Moon also begins rolling out Tuesday night overseas, and by Friday it will be playing in nearly every territory except Japan and China.

Transformers is Paramount's biggest franchise, with the first two films grossing $1.54 billion. The second film drew negative reviews, and Bay himself has said it wasn't his best effort. The hope is that Dark of the Moon will put the franchise, based on the Hasbro toy line, back on course.

Along with LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson and John Turturro reprise their roles, while Peter Cullen returns as the voice of Optimus Prime and Hugo Weaving as the voice of Megatron.

New faces include Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (who replaces Megan Fox as the love interest), Patrick Dempsey and John Malkovich.

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