boxoffice preview

'Payne' game leads weekend frame On crowded schedule, Fox also offers something for the ladies: Searchlight's 'Bees'

The movie theater operators who attended the ShowEast confab here had to rush back to change their marquees today as another batch of new titles hit multiplexes.

Among the newcomers is Fox's "Max Payne," an adaptation of the action-packed video game that stars Mark Wahlberg in the titular avenging-cop role and has the young-male demographic in its sights. How high into the teen millions it will open depends on how many young men bring dates to the theater Saturday, with its Friday debut likely to be substantial regardless.

But the movie certainly won't have the market to itself, and the studio even has a second wide debutant of its own in Fox Searchlight's drama "The Secret Life of Bees."

No worries there, though, as "Bees" — which stars Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning in a drama based on Sue Monk Kidd's best-seller — couldn't target a more distinct audience from "Payne" in aiming for older women and to a lesser extent younger females. Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Paul Bettany fill out the ensemble cast, but reviews could prove key to "Bees" being anywhere near a breakout hit during the crowded frame.

Elsewhere among the debutants, Lionsgate unspools Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biopic "W." amid decent early response from critics lauding a relatively even-handed treatment of the subject matter by the film's controversial helmer. A top-three finish seems likely given the broad audience anticipation for the release that comes just weeks before the presidential election.

Summit Entertainment's R-rated comedy "Sex Drive" goes after much the same demo as "Payne." Light prerelease interest in tracking surveys shows that "Sex" will fetch a weekend gross somewhere in the single-digit millions.

Meanwhile, the four wide openers will increase a recent glut of films crowding multiplexes for a piece of the boxoffice action in a season hardly known for robust grosses. Yet if one or more of the new releases click, that could put another notch in the win column for the industry, much like the year-over-year uptick posted last session despite at least a couple of misfires among the frame's bevy of wide openers.

Seasonal grosses are tracking about 8% ahead of the same portion of fall 2007. That's mostly thanks to easy comparisons with limp year-ago weekends as well as some boxoffice bite from Disney's family comedy "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

"Chihuahua" could approach double-digit millions during its third session to grab one of the frame's top rankings after finishing No. 1 in its first two weekends. (partialdiff)