'Dragon' to slay boxoffice competition

'Alice' and 'Hot Tub' to fight over second, third spots

Moviegoers who just took off their 3D glasses after seeing "Alice in Wonderland" will put them back on again this weekend as Paramount unleashes DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon."

At the same time, MGM is hoping that other moviegoers will focus on its time-travel comedy "Hot Tub Time Machine," shifting attention from the embattled studio's current financial duress.

Based on a popular children's book, the first in a series by British author Cressida Cowell, "Dragon" recounts the PG adventures of a Viking teen who befriends a young dragon.
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders -- the team behind the 2D "Lilo & Stitch" -- the movie makes full use of its 3D vistas as it flies on the backs of airborne dragons high above the Scandinavian fjords.

Back on earth, "Dragon" already has had to find its footing within the universe of existing digital 3D theaters.

Right now, there are 2,300-2,400 North American locations that can host the new wave of 3D movies; the number is increasing week by week as new sites come online. Some urban locations like New York even have 3D theaters that sit across the street from each other, which means no one film is likely to command all available 3D sites at any one time.

The flip side of the question is whether there is enough room for two or even three near-simultaneous 3D releases to co-exist successfully.

During the past three weekends, Disney's "Alice" has reigned atop the boxoffice, grossing more than $270 million domestically. Opening in 2,063 3D sites, it commanded the bulk of the available 3D locations as the run of Fox's "Avatar" began to wind down.

This weekend, "Dragon," positioned to take over the boxoffice's top spot, will elbow "Alice" off many of the 3D screens. The Paramount release is bowing in 4,055 theaters, and more than half of them -- 2,178 locations -- will offer 3D, including 185 Imax houses.

With 3D locations steadily expanding, though, "Alice" will continue to hold forth in 3,384 locations, including about 1,450 3D sites.

"I am very pleased by the support that exhibition has put behind installing additional screens before Easter," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said.

By next weekend, when Warner Bros.' "Clash of the Titans," which underwent a late-in-the-game 3D makeover, enters the scene, competition will be even more fierce. If this weekend plays out as expected, it should suggest that the currently installed base of 3D screens can support two big features at a time. But throw a third into the mix and it becomes problematic.

During last week's ShoWest exhibitors convention in Las Vegas, there was grumbling on the floor that Paramount was muscling "Dragon" into theaters by threatening to withhold its upcoming "Iron Man 2" and "Shrek Forever After" from exhibitors who didn't play ball.

"We never, never said that," said Jim Tharp, Paramount's president of domestic theatrical distribution, responding to the charge. He pointed to the movie's potential appeal as the key to achieving its theater count. "Once (DreamWorks Animation CEO) Jeffrey (Katzenberg) started screening the movie, a lot of exhibitors showed up, saw it and liked it."

What about the additional charge that Paramount insisted a given theater had to put "Dragon" into its 3D auditorium if it also wanted a 2D print?

"We always want the best screens in a theater, so certainly if 3D was the premier auditorium in a theater, we took that tactic," Tharp said.

As for the movie's prospects, interest in "Dragon" has shown a sharp uptick during the past few days. Earlier this week, handicappers placed its three-day take in the mid-$30 million range. Now, it's looking like it could land anywhere from mid $30 million-mid $40 million, with a few outliers predicting even more.

It certainly will benefit by replacing "Alice" in 185 Imax theaters, though "Alice" will hang on as a midnight movie in many of those venues.

At the Imax sites, which contracted for "Dragon" before "Titans" entered the picture, the toon is guaranteed to play for six weeks and won't need to surrender screens until "Iron Man 2" arrives. Because Imax commands premium ticket prices, that will also pump up "Dragon's" gross.

As far as its boxoffice take goes, another unknown is whether exhibitors across the board will take advantage of the public's fascination with 3D to further increase ticket prices. After surveying 10 theaters, media analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG predicted that some chains are increasing 3D ticket prices -- which already enjoy an upcharge compared with regular tickets -- by as much as 26%, though several circuits queried Thursday would not confirm that strategy.

In any event, with "Dragon" flying high, "Alice" and the very different "Hot Tub" should duke it out during the weekend for second and third position.

Even if it drops 50% during its fourth frame, "Alice" will take home a more-than-respectable $17 million, and it should crest the $300 million mark as it enters next weekend's Easter holiday.

The R-rated "Hot Tub," the first movie released by MGM since "Fame" in September, is taking an entirely different tact.

Directed by Steve Pink, the raunchy comedy stars John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson as down-on-their-luck pals transported to 1986, where they face the prospect of living their lives over again.

Although advance word has some buzzing that its gross-out humor could turn the movie into another "The Hangover," it is expected to open more modestly, somewhere in the mid-teens. If it does better than that, it could give "Alice" a run for the No. 2 spot.
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