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At least one tracking service predicts that "Iron Man" will fly well north of $70 million through Sunday as Paramount debuted the Robert Downey Jr. starrer Thursday with 8 p.m. and midnight showtimes in more than 2,500 locations.

The distributor has 4,105 playdates set for today. The only other wide opener this weekend is Sony's female- targeted "Made of Honor," a romantic comedy that could reach the teen millions.

Internet movie ticketer Fandango said 81% of its recent sales were for the Marvel-produced "Iron Man." With film awareness already huge, Par hopes positive word-of-mouth from its Thursday screenings will stoke must-see sentiment throughout the weekend.

Even rival studio execs occasionally root for one another's films to do well, hoping that a competitor's success will prove a positive industry bellwether. That's particularly true for "Iron Man" this weekend, the first frame of the crucial summer boxoffice season.

The head of a rival studio recently emerged from an "Iron Man" screening to declare it "a terrific movie that will make a lot of money and launch a major new movie franchise."

As for its opening success, grosses as always will be measured against the film's production budget, prints and advertising costs, which on "Iron Man" total more than $225 million, including a $150 million negative cost. So Marvel was safe on that score weeks ago, when early tracking showed the film a lock for a $45 million opening or more.

Even a $30 million opening could fuel a domestic run of $150 million, and an action film like "Iron Man" likely would have no trouble doing even better internationally. Figuring an exhibitor split of, say, 50% and assuming DVD and other ancillaries will more than cover marketing, it's worth betting that the film's fledgling producer Marvel is looking at a nice payday from its first solo production.

Now that even $80 million is within the realm of possibility for opening grosses, the only question about Marvel's profits on the film is how high they will rise.

Paramount put up about $75 million in the film's P&A, which it will recoup from the first grosses. The company also will get an unspecified distribution fee.

Meanwhile, most of the "Iron Man" reviews have been raves, and RottenTomatoes.com calculates an impressive 94% positive rating among critics. That makes "Iron Man" the best-reviewed film of the year and gives it the site's top rating ever for a superhero film.

However, one serially contrarian reviewer at a major newspaper tried to poke a pin in the iron zeppelin just before its launch.

The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan weighed in Thursday with a negative to mixed review, grousing over script nuances that he acknowledged audiences "likely will not (notice)." The scribe's previous contrarian reviews include a still-mentioned slam of "Titanic," whose dialogue Turan found unrealistic.

As "Titanic" remains the best-grossing film of all time, it's tough to argue with conventional wisdom that broadly targeted event films are relatively critic-proof. But distribution executives note older prospective patrons of such films can be dissuaded by a negative review.

Older patrons tend to take a week or two to check out films, and their failure to show up at all tends to go unnoticed. But a harsh review simply is never a good thing, so a high-profile film diss stirs exec animus quickly.

"There should be a law against critics," a rival studio exec said after the Times published its review of the Par film.

All agree that the effect of any negative review of "Iron Man" will be minimal.

"There is an impact — that's just common sense — at least on the first weekend," another high-ranking studio exec said. "But if word-of-mouth is positive, then most eventually will go to see the movie."

Even those dissuaded from buying tickets could feed ancillary profits for dissed films. (partialdiff)
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