Can Indy squash Spidey?

'Skull' could whip up a record $150 mil-plus in five-day opening

Expectations management goes out the window when a film is considered a candidate for the biggest opening of all time.

Paramount unspools "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" at 12:01 a.m. Thursday in about 2,000 locations, and industryites already are talking about a five-day haul north of $150 million. That would put "Skull" on course to best the "Spider-Man 3" opening of $151.1 million in May 2007 — with an asterisk, given its five-day bow vs. the three-day debut for the Spidey sequel.

"Skull" represents the iconic Lucasfilm franchise's first new installment in 19 years, and it's expected to play in as many as 4,000 theaters by the weekend. Double and triple screenings in many venues easily will double that number, for a print run servicing upward of 8,000 screens.

The 1980s Indy films posted domestic totals running from $209.6 million for franchise fountainhead "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to $197.2 million for the second sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," whose outsized foreign grosses helped "Crusade" outgross "Raiders" on a worldwide basis. First sequel "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" rung up less than both other Indy flicks domestically and internationally.

As is the norm with tentpole releases these days, 61 international territories will see "Skull" bow roughly day-and-date with the North American rollout. And though early reviews have been mixed, the frenzy among even the jaded press contingent at Cannes for the film's world premiere Sunday makes it clear that word-of-mouth will be more vital to its theatrical performance than critical reaction (HR 5/19).

Suffice it to say, Paramount has a lot of positive energy going for it as "Skull" looks to write itself into boxoffice record books.

"For several months, it's led our list of the most anticipated movies of the summer," noted Harry Medved, a spokesman for the Fandango online-ticketing service.

By Monday, "Skull" already was registering at 45% of all Fandango ticket sales, and that percentage was expected to nearly double by Thursday. Certain Los Angeles venues already had sold out for key early showtimes.

As for this weekend's competitive landscape, one other wide opener had been scheduled, Uwe Boll's "Postal." But it appeared distributor Event Film was backing off from its quest for up to 1,000 playdates in the face of resistance from Regal Cinemas and other exhibitors.

Last weekend's big release, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," topped the session with $56 million domestically and should do at least half that much through Monday. But the one-time notion that "Prince Caspian" would develop into a sequel phenom has faded.

"Iron Man" still played strongly in its third weekend, grossing $31.8 million to push its domestic cume to $223 million. But even holiday-padded ticket sales are unlikely to do more than keep the Robert Downey Jr. starrer grossing a bit north of $20 million through Monday.

Meanwhile, from returning helmer Steven Spielberg through topliners Harrison Ford and other cast, reports have "Skull" talent deferring big upfront paydays for backend deals. So negative costs are believed to total comfortably below the $200 million level common for summer event films these days.

And "Skull" is definitely an event film.

"Ever since 'Iron Man' opened huge three weeks ago, moviegoing audiences have been waiting for the real deal and avoiding the pretenders to the throne," said David Davis, managing partner and boxoffice analyst at entertainment consultancy Arpeggio Partners. "Indy is the real deal."

Davis predicts a "Skull" haul of "at least $175 million over five days." (partialdiff)