Top directors face off in first fall frame

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Fall is officially here. The weather is crisper, the leaves are turning, and movie theaters are offering more choices for adults. Sporting the names of Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese, the top films at the boxoffice this weekend are sure to be from accomplished directors at the top of their game.

However, industry insiders are all over the map with their prognostications. Eastwood's World War II movie "Flags of Our Fathers" looks like the top dog, though Paramount Pictures is launching the film in only 1,876 theaters, which might hinder its opening gross. And with Nolan's period magician movie "The Prestige" gaining momentum with adult audiences, some believe it could give "Flags" a run for its money. In addition, Scorsese's "The Departed" is entering its third weekend with strong midweek numbers, an indication that it could remain a contender as audiences of all ages are turning out to see Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio do battle with Jack Nicholson.

There also is a family choice this weekend, with 20th Century Fox unveiling "Flicka," the horse movie starring Alison Lohman, Tim McGraw and Maria Bello.

Sony Pictures will bow Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," her first film since the hit "Lost in Translation," in 859 theaters. Bowing among the testosterone-packed top three pictures, the female choice of "Marie" -- with its period clothing, rock soundtrack and Kirsten Dunst in the title role -- might prove more lucrative than initially anticipated.

Paramount has high hopes for "Flags," a DreamWorks/ Warner Bros. co-production. With Eastwood's pedigree and its dramatization of the stories of the men who were photographed raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, the film might not open to huge numbers but is likely to play well throughout the fall. "Flags" interprets how the Pulitzer-winning photo turned those soldiers into instant heroes and how the U.S. government used it to influence public opinion of the war.

Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach and Barry Pepper star in the R-rated film. Insiders have placed its opening in the $15 million-$18 million range. Eastwood's biggest opener was "Space Cowboys," which bowed to $18 million in 2000.

Buena Vista's "Prestige" will open in 2,281 theaters. The film, Nolan's first since last year's hit "Batman Begins," stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as rival magicians in the early 1900s who are obsessed with their craft and try to beat each other at their game. The film has received positive early reviews, but it will be interesting to watch how it fares after the unexpected success of Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist," which also centers on magic. "Prestige" seems to be attracting attention from all kinds of moviegoers. It isn't clear where its boxoffice will top out this weekend, but it could challenge "Flags" if people opt for escapism over a war story. Written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, "Prestige" was produced by Newmarket Prods., Buena Vista and Warners.

In fact, Warners is involved in what could be the top three films at the boxoffice this frame. With international rights to "Flags," as co-producers on "Prestige" and as backers of "Departed," the studio -- which had a tough summer -- might end up back at the top in a big way.

Fox will open the PG-rated "Flicka" in 2,877 theaters. Adapted from the novel "My Friend Flicka," the family drama is directed by Michael Mayer in a departure from his most recent film, the indie "A Home at the End of the World." "Flicka" centers on a girl (Lohman) who attempts to train a wild mustang, to the dismay of her father (McGraw). A Fox 2000 film, "Flicka" was written by Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner. Insiders are placing its gross in the $8 million-$10 million range.
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