Box Office Preview: 'Contagion' Aims to Knock 'The Help' Out of No. 1 Spot

Contagion - 2011
Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh's latest stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cottilard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet; "Warrior" is also looking to build word-of-mouth as the fall movie season kicks in.

Hypochondriacs should steer clear of their local multiplex this weekend, because Contagion is about to break out.

Warners Bros.’ new medical thriller, from director Steven Soderbergh and an all-star cast, should easily take the top spot at the North American box office, bringing an end to the three-weekend reign that The Help has enjoyed atop the box office charts.

The Help, from DreamWorks and Disney, has shown remarkable staying power, though, and is expected to hang around. The female-centric movie looks as if it will command the second slot, while Lionsgate’s more male-oriented Warrior opens in third place with its own hopes of turning into an equally long-running phenomenon.

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After a Labor Day weekend during which the newcomers turned in a lackluster performance, business should perk up with the beginning of the fall movie season. A couple of other movies -- Sony’s comedy Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star and The Bubble Factory’s swamp-thing horror movie Creature -- will look to carve out a niche or two. And the Weinstein Co. will stage a national sneak of its upcoming Sarah Jessica Parker comedy I Don’t Know How She Does It on Saturday night.

With a cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cottilard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet, Contagion packs the most star power of the weekend’s new arrivals. The PG-13-rated movie about a worldwide epidemic, written by Scott Z. Burns, has been likened to a thinking-man's Irwin Allen-type disaster movie. If nothing else, it will allow headline writers to trot out a whole string of illness metaphors as it infects 3,222 theaters, 257 of them in the Imax format.

Produced for under $60 million by Warners, the socially minded Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, the movie looks on track to gross north of $20 million for the weekend.

While that means The Help will surrender the top spot, the period movie set in the South during the Civil Rights era has has taken in nearly $128 million at the domestic box office and should pick up another $10 million or so this weekend.

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Meanwhile, Lionsgate is hoping to build equally fervent word-of-mouth for Warrior, its PG-13-rated mixed martial arts movie. Convinced that the film -- directed by Gavin O’Connor and starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two brothers who face off in the ring -- transcends its genre, the studio got the ball rolling with a national sneak on Sept. 4 in about 550 theaters nationwide. According to Lionsgate, 80 percent of the audience gave it an upbeat definite recommend.

Opening in 1,869 theaters, Warrior is expected to take in around $8 million. But the focus will be more on its per-theater average than the overall number, since Lionsgate is hoping it can generate the kind of positive reactions that will keep audiences coming back for the next few weekends.

Expectations are much more modest for Sony’s R-rated Bucky Larson. Nick Swardson (of Reno 911!) plays an average guy who comes to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a porn star. Tom Brady directed the $10 million production for Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. And it’s looking at an opening of about $4 million.

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Meanwhile, the independently produced Creature from Sid, Bill and Jon Sheinberg’s Bubble Factory is taking a totally independent route. The Louisiana-set monster movie, written and directed by Fred Andrews, is being self-distributed under the Bubble Distribution banner, which has booked 1,507 screens in the U.S. and another 150 in Canada.

And looking to prime the pump for its working-wife comedy How She Does It, which opens Sept. 16, the Weinstein Co. will sneak that movie in 800 theaters Saturday night.