Big holiday draws hang in there

Three newbies unlikely to crack top spots in first weekend of '07

None of the new releases set to hit theaters today will be much of a threat to the strong holdovers that dominated the marketplace during the holiday season. In fact, none is likely to hit the $10 million mark or get into the top three for the first frame of 2007.

Those positions should go to 20th Century Fox's "Night at the Museum," expected to earn an additional $20 million this weekend; Sony Pictures' "The Pursuit of Happyness," which is eyed to generate grosses in the teens; and Paramount Pictures' "Dreamgirls," which could earn an additional $10 million.

Paramount unveils the Hilary Swank starrer "Freedom Writers" in 1,360 theaters. The familiar plot line of the young, enthusiastic teacher who comes in to rescue a group of inner-city students (see "Dangerous Minds" or "Take the Lead") is back at work with this Richard LaGravenese-directed feature. The film is based on the true story of a young teacher in Long Beach, Calif., who finds a way to unite her racially divided students by encouraging them to write in journals. An MTV co-production, the PG-13 "Writers" is looking to lure younger audiences. Imelda Staunton and Patrick Dempsey co-star. Initially slated for Jan. 12, the film opens today on a smaller scale and will expand next weekend to about 2,000 runs.

While "Writers" has the smallest release schedule of the new films, it's likely to be the top grosser of the bunch. With a push from MTV, the film could connect with younger audiences and pass Paramount's big hit, "Dreamgirls," which is expected to gross $8 million-$10 million in its second full weekend of release.

New Line Cinema bows "Code Name: The Cleaner" today in 1,736 theaters. The PG-13 co-production with FilmEngine stars Cedric the Entertainer, Elizabeth Hurley, Lucy Liu and Nicollette Sheridan. From director Les Mayfield ("The Man") the action comedy centers on an amnesiac janitor (Cedric) who becomes convinced that he's an undercover agent embroiled in an international arms ring. Industry insiders don't expect much from the film, putting its three-day range in the $5 million-$7 million range.

Lionsgate opens the twisted animated film "Happily N'Ever After" in 2,381 theaters. The plot centers on Cinderella, who must lead a resistance effort when she realizes her wicked stepmother is trying to take over Fairy Tale Land. With a strong voice cast featuring Sigourney Weaver, Sarah Michelle Gellar, George Carlin, Andy Dick and Freddy Prince Jr., the PG film is reminiscent of the Weinstein Co.'s "Hoodwinked," which opened to nearly $17 million in January 2006 and went on to gross more than $50 million domestically. But it's unlikely that this twist on the Cinderella story will get to those numbers; industry insiders have its opening pegged closer to the $5 million range.

Many limited releases are expanding this weekend.

After a strong run in limited release, Universal Pictures is moving up its expansion of Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" to this weekend. The R-rated dystopian drama, which has grossed $1.5 million since bowing on Christmas Day, will expand to 1,910 playdates.

Picturehouse's "Pan's Laby-rinth" — which had a stellar opening in limited release last weekend, grossing $568,641 in 17 theaters — will add 24 runs to Los Angeles and three to Chicago. It goes wide Jan. 12.

After providing it a one-week awards season qualifying run in December, MGM is expanding Irwin Winkler's "Home of the Brave." The Iraq War drama starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson debuted rather inauspiciously, bowing to $6,000 from three theaters. But the studio is adding runs and hoping for a stronger debut the second time around.

Warner Independent Pictures expands "The Painted Veil" to 72 theaters this frame. The Edward Norton-Naomi Watts starrer bowed Dec. 20 to a per-screen average of $12,771. Since then, the Bob Yari-produced film has earned $679,398.