Bang meets buzz this weekend

'Gangster' shoots for top spot, but 'Bee' looks like a honey, too

This could be the weekend in which the studios help theater owners put some bang back in the boxoffice.

Universal's Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe starrer "American Gangster" has been going gangbusters in prerelease tracking. And the weekend appears doubly blessed as the PG-rated animated feature "Bee Movie," from DreamWorks/Paramount, appears to be solid counterprogramming to the grittier "Gangster."

"Gangster" is a bit unwieldy for those programming auditoriums, with a running time of two hours and 37 minutes. But solid early reviews still could push the Ridley Scott-helmed crime drama north of $40 million.

Universal execs see Warner Bros.' 2006 Irish mob film "The Departed" as offering a rough template for the likely bow of "Gangster." "Departed" opened in 3,017 theaters with $26.9 million during the Oct. 6 frame en route to a domestic haul totaling $132.4 million.

"Gangster" goes out with 3,054 playdates.

" 'American Gangster' is big title for Universal, but we're dealing with an adult-oriented, R-rated film," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said.

Title awareness among prospective moviegoers is high, and the picture is tracking well with older and younger males and females. But it's skewing male and slightly toward an older demographic in prerelease surveys among prospective patrons.

Overall, prerelease interest in "Gangster" is so high that most industryites will be surprised if "Gangster" doesn't deliver $30 million or more during its first three days despite execs' understandable need to manage expectations. Anything much beyond that would be truly notable, with only two films of about the same running time bowing in that rarefied range.

Historically, among R-rated films with running times of more than 21/2 hours, only two have managed to open in the mid- $30 million range or higher: "Troy" (two hours, 43 minutes) bowed with $46.9 million in May 2004, and "Gladiator" (two hours, 35 minutes) debuted with $34.8 million in May 2000.

Buzz has it that "Bee" — produced by DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Paramount — will open with $35 million or more. Some suggest that "Bee" could even fly past "Gangster" to grab the weekend's top spot.

It certainly helps that voice topliner Jerry Seinfeld — who also helped pen and produce "Bee" — has worked the talk show circuit tirelessly in advance of the bow. "Bee" is set for 3,928 engagements.

New Line's "Martian Child," starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet, also opens wide today, but expectations are more modest.

Early reviews give high marks to the cast, with Cusack getting particularly good notices, so the PG-13 film's best hopes probably lie in an OK opening and then sustaining a solid run built on positive buzz from early audiences. A bow in the high-single-digit millions seems likely.

"It's a sweet movie," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said. "It's going to skew to women 25 and up. That will be the main audience for it."

"Martian" is set for 2,020 playdates.

Meanwhile, Hollywood will be hoping that between "Gangster" and "Bee," the ticket-buying public will rediscover its appetite for moviegoing. Certainly, an array of holdovers still playing in the market and several platforming films also could use the business.

The industry has marked six consecutive down sessions compared with year-ago grosses. The fall take is off 5% from a year ago, though year-to-date boxoffice remains up 6% compared with the same portion of 2006, according to data tracker Nielsen EDI.

During last year's corresponding frame, Fox's "Borat" topped openers with $26.5 million, followed by Disney's "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" with $19.5 million and Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flushed Away" with $18.8 million.