Boxoffice battle: Can Bale terminate Stiller?

Battle of sequels is first tentpole showdown of season

It's Ben Stiller against the cyborgs at the multiplex this weekend.

The comic actor's sequel, Fox's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," has at least a chance of edging out the first new "Terminator" movie in almost six years for the No. 1 boxoffice ranking during the long Memorial Day weekend. That's largely because Warner Bros. will open "Terminator Salvation" Thursday with thousands of 12:01 a.m. performances, but weekend rankings will be based only on what the Christian Bale starrer grosses between Friday and Monday.

Bale plays the franchise's recurring John Connor character, a cyborg-battling defender of mankind portrayed by Nick Stahl in 2003's "Terminator: Rise of the Machines." Bale's casting has drawn keen attention as it is his first big-screen appearance since last summer's Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight."

Relative newcomer Sam Worthington -- who also will be seen in James Cameron's upcoming sci-fi actioner "Avatar" -- plays a cyborg, or a robot built from organic and synthetic parts, in a role of the sort that Arnold Schwarzenegger built a career on.

As the first "Terminator" film to secure a PG-13 rating, "Salvation" is expected to draw younger than most hard-core actioners but not as young as "Smithsonian," which also should attract more females. Directed by McG ("Charlie's Angels"), prerelease surveys show "Salvation" drawing huge interest from males 17 and older.

Among Memorial Day weekend openers of the past several years, Warners execs figure their pic's likely audience demos will most mimic those of 2005's "The Longest Yard," a remake of the classic football comedy that registered $58.6 million over the four-day holiday frame. If "Salvation" were to match that, an extra $10 million or so from its Thursday performances would see the gross approach $70 million through Memorial Day.

"Our tracking is great, and the junket went really well," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said. "We're very excited about this movie and looking forward to a strong weekend and a very long run."

Produced by Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek's Halcyon for upward of $180 million, "Salvation" -- set for 3,530 domestic theaters this weekend -- was a negative pickup for Warners and Sony. The latter will distribute the film in most international territories beginning June 5, with "Salvation" bowing only in seven non-Sony territories in the Middle East and Korea this weekend and a handful of Sony territories during the May 29 frame.

Meanwhile, the PG "Smithsonian" should play much like a family film but could split date-night business with "Salvation." In any event, the true measure of its success likely will lay over the longer haul.

The original "Museum" opened in December 2006 with an undramatic $30.4 million but went on to ring up $251 million overall domestically. "Smithsonian" seems a cinch to register $50 million during the four-day frame, with its opening appeal among nonfamily patrons the key to whether it bows north of that figure.

"There hasn't been a real family picture in the marketplace since 'Monsters vs. Aliens' opened, and I think audiences are champing at the bit for a great one," Fox distribution boss Bruce Snyder said.

"Monsters" opened during a three-day March frame with $59 million and grossed $191 million overall domestically.

Helmed by Shawn Levy ("The Pink Panther"), who also directed the "Museum" original, "Smithsonian" is set for an impressive 4,096 domestic playdates, including 160 high-grossing Imax venues. It also is getting a big day-and-date push abroad as Fox unspools the effects-laden pic in a whopping 93 foreign territories.

"Smithsonian" totes an estimated negative cost of $125 million after factoring in Canadian tax breaks.

Also this weekend, Paramount unspools the Wayans brothers' comedy spoof "Dance Flick" in wide release.

Like most Wayans films, "Flick" is likely to draw most heavily among urban moviegoers but could cross over into broader demos. The release should see teen millions during the long frame, but how high it climbs through Monday depends on how broadly the pic manages to play.

Rated PG-13, "Flick" boasts an ensemble cast topped by Damon Wayans Jr., Craig Wayans, Shoshana Bush and Essence Atkins. Damien Dante Wayans gets his first feature directing credit.