'Incredible Hulk' set to smash boxoffice

'The Happening' also opens wide this weekend

This weekend features a couple of popcorn movies in the best sense of the expression: entertaining and broadly appealing films with the potential to sell lots of tickets and concessions.

Universal bows a much-eyed Marvel remake of "The Incredible Hulk," while Fox unspools M. Night Shyamalan's sci-fi horror film "The Happening." No one is going to fall asleep watching either one, and their combined take should keep the recently reinvigorated summer boxoffice lively.

Prerelease tracking shows that "Hulk" should open comfortably north of $40 million and "Happening" could happen upon $25 million or so. Such performances would help shape a Father's Day weekend capable of besting the $141 million in industry grosses rung up during the comparable frame a year ago, when "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" bowed with $58.1 million amid light competition.

At least one industry analyst -- Drew Crum of the Stifel Nicolaus investment firm -- projects an opening weekend for "Hulk" of up to $60 million. But that forecast looks substantially overheated compared with the consensus estimate.

Most industryites suggest that even a $50 million bow would represent an incredible haul for Universal and Marvel. After all, this was a film greenlighted amid broad skepticism over the merits of a "Hulk" remake.

Produced for an estimated $150 million, the effects-laden film follows the attempt by Universal to bring the Marvel character to the big screen via June 2003's simply titled "Hulk." Despite opening with $62.1 million, the Ang Lee-helmed first "Hulk" sunk like a rock over subsequent frames and was widely dissed as a critical and commercial failure after ringing up a total of $132.2 million domestically.

So though the remake likely will open more modestly, Universal executives hope it will show much sturdier legs than the original and reinvigorate fanboy interest in the franchise. Early critical reaction has been positive.

"We're looking for a solid opening, but it's important that we take a look at what the final domestic version is before we make any comparisons with the film that was made five years ago," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said. "Marvel did a wonderful job addressing any problems that fans may have had with the last film."

Complaints with the first "Hulk" primarily involved its dark tone as well as grumbling over visual effects. Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter") helmed the remake, with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana in the title role.

"The Hulk is the most popular, the most beloved of all Marvel characters," Universal chairman Marc Shmuger said. "Marvel has reinvented the movie in such a way that it can really connect with its fan base and also cross over into a broader audience. That's a big plus for the company and for the Marvel brand."

If the PG-13 film's boisterously positive reception at its Sunday premiere is any gauge, the green lug might be back on his way to Franchiseville. For now, suffice to say that pre-release interest has prompted exhibitors to schedule a smattering of midnight Thursday showtimes in larger markets, always a good sign.

Shyamalan's recent track record at the boxoffice has been similarly checkered, featuring a disappointing $18 million bow for "Lady in the Water" in July 2006 and the impressive $50.7 million debut for "The Village" in July 2004.

Considering that, Fox executives believe it's a good sign that audience awareness for the R-rated "Happening" is decent for all four polling quadrants, covering younger and older males and females. Yet must-see sentiment appears a tad modest for the Mark Wahlberg starrer.

A $50 million production co-financed by UTV Motion Pictures, "Happening" would be well-served to draw reviews lauding a return to form for the helmer after the critical drubbing of "Lady." Early reviews haven't been auspicious in that regard, but execs predict that word-of-mouth will be strong regardless.

Still, a likely $30 million-plus second frame for the Paramount-distributed "Kung Fu Panda," from DreamWorks Animation, means "Happening" likely will land in third place for the session when all the dust settles.
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