Sizing 'Up' the boxoffice field

Pixar toon set to bow big; 'Hell' could break loose

It's a two-thumbs-up kind of weekend.

Conventional wisdom suggests that critics have less impact on broadly targeted comedies and action pics than on adult-skewing dramas. But acclaim of the kind that "Up" has attracted can't hurt its opening prospects.

A 3-D adventure toon produced by Disney's Pixar, "Up" was directed by Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.") and Bob Peterson, a first-time helmer who penned the original screenplay. Boasting a notably unflashy voice cast topped by Ed Asner and newcomer child actor Jordan Nagai, "Up" tells the story of an old man traveling the globe in a balloon-hoisted house with an 8-year-old stowaway.

Praise from critics has been through the roof.

RottenTomatoes.com, which tracks critical reaction to upcoming releases, had "Up" attracting 97% positive reviews as of this posting. Even the oft-tough crowd of Cannes cineastes responded enthusiastically when the film opened the festival this month.

"Up" will play in 3,766 theaters, with at least 1,530 3-D auditoriums set for its first weekend. That's the biggest number of extra-dimentional screens for any release as the industry scrambles to roll out 3-D systems amid burgeoning public interest in such films.

The stiffest competition for "Up" is likely to come from Fox's holdover family comedy "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." The No. 1 grosser last weekend, the Ben Stiller sequel unspooled with $70 million over the four-day Memorial Day frame, and a 50% drop from its Friday-Sunday tally would see "Smithsonian" fetch $28 million during its sophomore session.

But there is another wide opener Friday Universal's Sam Raimi-helmed horror pic "Drag Me to Hell" also had a well-received Cannes screening and has drawn overwhelmingly positive early reviews.

Toting a PG-13 rating, "Hell" normally would be expected to skew female. Yet with the "Spider-Man" director guiding the frightfest, Raimi's more male-skewing fan base could round out opening audiences and help the Alison Lohman/Justin Long starrer reach the upper teen millions through Sunday.

"Hell" breaks loose Friday in 2,508 theaters.

The most recent Disney/Pixar release, "WALL-E," opened with $63 million in June and grossed $224 million domestically. Those represent sensible targets for "Up," though execs said they would be happy with an opening anywhere north of $50 million.

"I'm very bullish," Disney distribution boss Chuck Viane said. "The reviews have been nothing but spectacular, and it could be our time."

A hot theatrical marketplace is helping to lift "Up" projections. The boxoffice has been strong all year, and broadly targeted comedies have worked especially well.

The industry's collective grosses have outperformed year-earlier comparisons in nine of the 10 past weekends, and the boxoffice season is pacing 4% ahead of summer 2008. This weekend will be compared with a $168.5 million session last year topped by the $57 million bow of Warner Bros.' "Sex and the City."
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