'Christmas Carol' looks to top boxoffice

Robert Zemeckis' 3D adaptation stars Jim Carrey

The holiday season starts early this weekend, as Disney unspools Robert Zemeckis' 3D animated feature "A Christmas Carol."

The industry dates the holiday boxoffice season from the weekend before Thanksgiving, but Disney executives believe the PG-rated "Carol" will play strongly well past Turkey Day. Zemeckis' success with his first animated holiday outing -- 2004's "The Polar Express," a $305 million worldwide grosser for Warner Bros. -- has helped Disney rally exhibitor support for his latest seasonal venture, Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said.

"The exhibitors have been looking at Bob Zemeckis' track record, and they're saying, 'I have to have this,' " Viane said. "It's not just a kids movie. It should be a four-quadrant picture for everybody."

"Carol" will play on a mix of 2D and 3D screens and is set for 3,700 theaters overall. The Jim Carrey-toplined release boasts about 2,050 3D screens, including 181 Imax auditoriums.

Zemeckis' ImageMovers produced the film's pricey mix of motion capture and CGI for an estimated $100 million-plus. Prerelease tracking surveys show good awareness and must-see interest, and "Carol" should top the weekend rankings easily with a first-frame tally in the $35 million-$45 million range.

Three other pics also unspool in wide release beginning Friday.

Overture Films' "The Men Who Stare at Goats," a George Clooney-toplined military comedy, is set for more than 2,400 playdates and could be headed for a bow in the low- to mid-teen millions. From first-time director Grant Heslov, it likely will skew older than other pics this weekend and thus could display decent legs in subsequent frames.

"We'll be one of the only comedies out there for a few weeks," Overture distribution boss Kyle Davies said.

Overture acquired "Goats" from Winchester Films and Clooney and Heslov's Smokehouse Pictures for less than $5 million.

Rated PG-13, Universal's supernatural horror thriller "The Fourth Kind" was directed by relative newcomer Olatunde Osunsanmi ("Within") and produced by Gold Circle Films. Universal holds U.S. distribution rights only, with "Fourth Kind" set for more than 2,500 domestic locations.

The main pic interest lies with younger moviegoers, with World Series spots helping to raise male awareness. That complemented the genre's built-in female appeal, and an opening in the $8 million-$12 million range looks doable.

Directed by "Donnie Darko" helmer Richard Kelly, Warner Bros.' "The Box" is a genre-bending yarn about a married couple who receive a mysterious wooden box that threatens to turn them into millionaire murderers. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden ("27 Dresses") play the harried marrieds.

Females represent core support s for the PG-13 pic, which is set for more than 2,600 theaters and should ring up $6 million or more through Sunday. Ted Field's Radar Pictures maintains most of the pic equity, with Warners holding a minority interest and getting a distribution fee.

Elsewhere, it should be interesting to see how Sony's Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It" holds up in its second weekend.

An unusually strong Sunday tally during its first frame -- stronger than either its first Friday or Saturday grosses -- could mean positive word-of-mouth is spreading. But with Halloween falling on a Saturday, the opening weekend was anything but a normal one in many respects.

Collectively, this weekend boxoffice will be compared with a $142.5 million frame last year topped by DreamWorks Animation's Paramount-distributed "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa." The animated sequel unspooled with $63.1 million en route to ringing up $180 million domestically.