Surely, a 'Legend' of the late fall

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The question of whether Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend" can become the stuff of boxoffice lore might hinge in part on whether the Will Smith starrer plays big on giant screens.

The sci-fi horror film, which Warners produced in partnership with Village Roadshow, unspools today in 3,606 theaters, including 77 Imax venues. Based on a Richard Matheson novella and preceded by a couple of previous film adaptations, "Legend" will play in 2-D projection in all venues.

The tracking for the film looks great, and Smith is proven marquee gold.

"Will is a four-quadrant star," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said, touting solid film-anticipation ratings among young and older males and females. "The Imax screens are important and can generate a lot of revenue," he added. "Imax is a unique brand that has its own following, (and) there are people who will go to see the movie and then go back to see it in Imax, so those screens can enhance the boxoffice by creating additional revenue."

A top distribution executive at a rival studio agreed. "I think the Imax numbers will shine, but not like what (exhibitors) saw with 'Beowulf,' " the exec said. "The Imax 3-D is the real draw."

With Paramount's "Beowulf," 3-D screens boasted grosses roughly twice those from conventional auditoriums.

Still, something north of $40 million appears to be well within reach for "Legend."

Warners will include a six-minute prologue teaser to its latest "Batman" film, "The Dark Knight," in all of the Imax venues showing "Legend."

Also this weekend, Fox debuts its live-action/animation hybrid "Alvin and the Chipmunks" with 3,476 playdates.

Alvin and his pals are computer-generated, while the rest of the film is live action.

"The picture seems to be perfectly positioned to be one of the key family films of the holiday season," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "It is for everyone."

Prerelease tracking shows "Chipmunks" is another four-quadrant draw. Enjoying such broad appeal, the comedy should open well above $20 million.

Yari Film Group debuted "The Perfect Holiday" on Wednesday, but early grosses were not encouraging.

The comedy -- playing in 1,306 locations -- is the second seasonal film boasting a mostly black cast, featuring producer Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard, among others.

Sony/Screen Gems' still-playing "This Christmas" has done good business during the past three sessions. "Perfect Holiday" could be hampered by its bowing behind that release, and it appears unlikely to ring up more than

single-digit millions during the weekend.

"Our target audience is African-American," Yari Film Group executive vp marketing Mitch Goldman said. "The screenings have been extremely well received. We do expect the bigger numbers in the urban areas, and the distribution strategy is built around that."

Limited expansions this weekend include Universal/Working Title's "Atonement," set for about 100 screens after a solid bow last weekend in 32 venues. Universal's Focus Features is handling U.S. engagements and Alliance those in Canada.

Also, Sony Pictures Classics sends out Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth" in six venues -- three in Los Angeles, two in New York and one in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, theatrical executives and exhibitors hope that "Legend," "Chipmunks" and others can sufficiently stir moviegoers to finally post a year-over-year uptick in the industry boxoffice.

Last weekend was the fifth consecutive session that underperformed the corresponding 2006 frame. Twelve of the past 13 weekends have notched year-over-year downticks.

Year-to-date, 2007 is 4.7% ahead of the same portion of '06 at $8.66 billion. However, the holiday season is off 12% so far.
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