Box Office Preview: J.J. Abrams' 'Super 8' to Battle 'X-Men: First Class' for Top Spot

Science Fiction Thriller
Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

From left: Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard face the fallout of secret government experiments.

Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler star in the period sci-fi film, produced by Steven Spielberg.

The pairing of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg has turned Super 8 into the box office mystery of the summer.

The period sci-fi pic -- directed by Abrams and produced by Spielberg -- officially rolls out Friday in 3,379 theaters, following paid sneaks at 329 locations Thursday, including 239 Imax runs. How it will do this weekend is the subject of heated speculation among insiders.

At the center of the buzz is pre-release tracking, which has been more muted than expected for a film directed by Abrams and produced by Spielberg.

Read THR's review of 'Super 8'

Overall awareness isn't quite where it should be, although there could be a myriad of reasons why. The film has no big stars and is an original story sandwiched between known franchise titles.

At the same time, Super 8 is drawing strong reviews, with critics crediting Abrams for going outside of Hollywood's comfort zone and making a film he calls an homage to the movies he grew up with as a kid, many of them from Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment.

'Super 8': J.J. Abrams Says Movie Was Inspired by Personal Experiences

Set in 1979, Super 8 tells the story of a group of kids who are filming a home movie when there's a violent train crash. When unexplained events start to threaten their town, they begin to suspect something inhuman escaped from the train. The film stars Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ryan Lee, Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills.

Paramount maintains that Super 8 doesn't need a big opening, since it cost $50 million to produce, far less than other summer studio films. The studio is predicting an opening in the $25 million to $30 million range.

J.J. Abrams: Working With Steven Spielberg on 'Super 8' Was 'Crazy Good'

Still, Paramount has been doing everything it can to ratchet up interest. It teamed with Twitter to host Thursday's paid previews and on Wednesday night held free sneaks in 11 cities in partnership with key websites.

Tracking has improved for two demos -- females under the age of 25 and males under the age of 25. The strongest quadrant continues to be males over the age of 25.

Paramount is deft at tweaking, or shifting, its marketing campaigns, if needed. And the studio's vital marketing ability came into view with the runaway success of the micro-budgeted Paranormal Activity.

VIDEO: Super 8': Sneak Peek at J.J. Abrams' New Movie

The weekend box office race could be close between Super 8 and 20th Century Fox's holdover X-Men: First Class, which debuted last weekend to $55.1 million. First Class has done strong midweek business, with a cume of $69.9 million through Wednesday.

One other new film enters the market this weekend, Smokewood Entertainment's Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, based on the bestselling book series and targeting girls ages 6-10.

Relativity Media is distributing the film for Smokewood, Sarah Siegel-Mangess and Gary Magness' production company. Their previous credits include Precious.

Judy Moody is expected to gross between $6 million and $10 million.

Among specialty films, Sony Classics Pictures is expanding Woody Allen's box office pleaser Midnight in Paris nationwide. The film will be playing in a total of 944 theaters, one of the widest plays ever for an Allen film. Midnight in Paris has grossed $7.8 million through Wednesday.