Records in its wake

'World's End'-led weekend should be biggest in history

It's a foregone conclusion that Buena Vista Pictures' "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" will be swinging from the mainmast of the boxoffice by the end of this weekend and with plenty of plunder in tow. It's just a question of how big the seafaring sequel will be.

But that's only part of the story.

With the second weekend of Paramount Pictures' "Shrek the Third" and Sony Pictures' still-potent "Spider-Man 3" in the mix, the frame is poised to be the biggest in history.

"At World's End" marks the third film in the Walt Disney Co.'s lucrative "Pirates" franchise to set sail in theaters and, like the other pictures, carries the demographically friendly PG-13 rating. For their latest high-seas escapades, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and company board a record 4,362 theater marquees for the Memorial Day holiday frame. Of those theaters, 1,068 will be digital — a high for that format as well.

To get a jump on the holiday session and prime the boxoffice pump, "At World's End" had previews Thursday starting at about 8 p.m. in about 4,000 theaters nationwide. Midnight shows followed, and some exhibitors will be running the film around the clock. Those previews will attract the hard-core fan base and might pull in moviegoers who have Friday off for the holiday, but they also could drain some of the weekend interest.

But with the buzz surrounding "At World's End" flying so high, that's not likely to be a problem; it's more probable that the film's two-hour, 47-minute running time will have more of an impact. According to MovieTickets.com, presales on "At World's End" are through the roof, and the film already is positioned to break all-time sales records for the online ticketer.

Most industry observers agree that "At World's End" should break boxoffice records this weekend. It's just a matter of how many and by how much.

Last year's "Pirates" film, "Dead Man's Chest," opened to $135.6 million in early July to become the biggest opening weekend in history, breaking the record set just six weeks earlier by 20th Century Fox's "X-Men: The Last Stand," which debuted during the four-day Memorial Day holiday frame with $122.9 million. "Dead Man's Chest" held the record until this month, when Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 3" vaulted past that total with $151.1 million to claim the crown.

Disney understandably is mum on projections in order to manage expectations, but industry insiders are fairly confident that the opening of "At World's End" will be bigger than "Spider-Man 3." And while "At World's End" has the advantage of an extra day with the four-day holiday frame, it is only a matter of time before another film comes along — i.e. "Spider-Man 3" and "Dead Man's Chest" — and does more business in three days than "At World's End" did in four.

Aside from the high expectations for "At World's End," the Memorial Day weekend should be a memorable one. The third "Pirates" is the third high-profile threequel to hit theaters in the past four weeks, and with "Shrek" and "Spidey 3" still in play, the marketplace is expected to expand.

Consequently, the weekend is likely to top the $247.6 million generated during the 2004 Memorial Day frame, the biggest weekend of all time. The top three films that weekend were DreamWorks' "Shrek 2" ($95.6 million), Fox's "The Day After Tomorrow" ($85.8 million) and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Troy" ($15.3 million).

In putting together the third and final chapter in the "Pirates" saga, Disney employed the same principal stars and producing, writing and directing team that navigated the first two films. Gore Verbinski helms, with Jerry Bruckheimer producing and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio handling the writing chores. Principal cast including Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley also are all on board.

Keeping the crew intact for "At World's End" probably was a good idea if one considers that the combined worldwide boxoffice for the first two "Pirates" films, "The Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Dead Man's Chest," was a staggering $1.7 billion. The industry rule of thumb maintains that during the average seven-year cycle of a film product, the boxoffice — the first income generator in a long line of ancillary revenue streams, including video/DVD, television, etc. — represents about 20% of the product's total gross. With "Pirates' " worldwide boxoffice to date, the projected total gross sales for the first two films alone would be in the multiple billions of dollars.

Speaking of franchises, DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" will have picked up about $150.3 million in its first seven days of release, and "Spider-Man 3" had caught $289.5 million in its web through Thursday. This weekend, "Shrek" and "Spider-Man" will finish in second and third place, respectively.

In a counterprogramming effort, the only other wide release will be Lionsgate's "Bug," an R-rated thriller from director William Friedkin, starring Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Lynn Collins. The film is based on an off-Broadway play written by Tracy Letts.

Sony Pictures Classics' "Paprika" and "Angel-A," Miramax Films' "The Golden Door" and IFC First Take's "The Boss of It All" also open in limited release this session.
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