Box Office Preview: East Coast Theaters Brace for Hurricane Irene

Sony Pictures

UPDATED: Movie-going in New York City could slow to a standstill as Mayor Bloomberg orders evacuations in low-lying areas and makes plans to shut down subway service.

Movies playing at the domestic box office this weekend face a far more formidable foe than each other — Hurricane Irene.

If weather forecasters are correct, Irene is going to cause massive problems along the entire East Coast as it travels north over the weekend. The Washington, D.C., area can expect torrential rains and dangerous winds beginning Saturday. The storm — now a Category 3 hurricane — will near New York City on Sunday. It's possible the city will take a direct hit.

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By late Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg in New York told hundreds of thousands of city residents to be prepared to evacuate, as well as ordering the evacuation of nursing homes and five hospitals in low-lying areas beginning Friday. He also made plans to shut down the subway system on Saturday.

Distribution executives in Hollywood and New York are closely tracking the storm, and say there’s no doubt it could be a rough weekend. Studios are in less of a lurch than independent distributors, since they’re mostly done releasing their summer films.

"I'd hate to be opening a movie now," said one studio executive.

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Three new movies open this weekend: The Luc Besson-produced action pic Colombiana, starring Zoe Saldana and distributed by TriStar; The Weinstein Co.’s R-rated ensemble comedy Our Idiot Brother headlining Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer; and the Guillermo del Toro-produced horror movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, distributed by FilmDistrict and starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce.

Notwithstanding the storm, all three films — which are tracking modestly -- could have a tough time toppling DreamWorks and Participant Media’s late-summer box office hit The Help from the No. 1 spot.

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The Help, distributed by Disney, is expected to gross in the $15 million range in its third weekend (The Help’s gross through Wednesday was $79.7 million).

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Idiot Brother could both end up in the $10 million to $12 million range, while Colombiana is tracking in the high single digits. However, box office observers caution that any one of the three new pics could overperform. TriStar is distributing and marketing Colombiana, although the filmmakers paid for marketing costs.

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Idiot Brother and Colombiana are both tracking well among young men, while young females are showing interest in Afraid of the Dark. The Weinstein Co. acquired Idiot Brother at Sundance, paying $6 million for distribution rights.

The Help isn’t the only strong holdover. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, from 20th Century Fox, which could earn $8 million this weekend. The origins film has now earned $261.1 million worldwide.