Box-Office Preview: Can 'Dunkirk' Battle Past $40M in U.S. Debut?

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

War films don't have a history of opening to big numbers; elsewhere, femme-centric comedy 'Girls Trip' expects to laugh loudly, while Luc Besson's big-budget 'Valerian' braces for bad news.

While Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is expected to win this weekend's box-office battle, the big question is whether the critically acclaimed World War II epic can clear $40 million in its U.S. landing.

War dramas have never been known for big openings, although Nolan — the mastermind behind the blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy — is a powerful brand unto himself.

Warner Bros., Nolan's home studio, is projecting a domestic debut in the $35 million-$40 million range. Most box-office observers believe Dunkirk will come in on the higher end, while some think it has a shot of doing more, thanks to a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 95 percent. Also, many believe the film will have exceptionally strong legs. 

Among other relatively recent World War II films, Angelina Jolie's Unbroken debuted to $30.6 million in December 2014, while Fury launched to $23.7 million in November of that same year. Last year, Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge bowed to $15.2 million.

To this day, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) remains the top-grossing World War II movie of all time domestically, earning $216.5 million (or $404.4 million when adjusting for inflation). The film opened to $31 million (or $57.6 million when accounting for inflation).

In terms of Nolan's track record, his last film, Interstellar, debuted to nearly $50 million over the long Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, including $47 million for the three-day weekend. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was his biggest opening ($160.9 million), followed by 2008's The Dark Knight ($158.4 million), 2005's Batman Begins ($73 million) and 2010's Inception ($62.8 million).

Nolan is a huge fan of Imax and shot much of Dunkirk with Imax cameras; he's also an advocate for 70mm film.

Dunkirk, which recounts one of World War II's most famous battles, stars Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard. At 106 minutes, it is the shortest film of Nolan's career, outside of his first movie.

Overseas, Dunkirk opens in 45 markets this weekend. It debuted in its first seven European markets on Wednesday, earning $2.2 million, including $1.1 million in France, on par with Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (2014).

Dunkirk reportedly cost $150 million or more to make, although sources at Warners say that figure is too high. It certainly isn't the only big-budget film of the weekend: Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets sports a net production budget of $180 million. 

Valerian may have trouble hitting $20 million in its debut, a dismal start for Besson's EuropaCorp and STXfilms, the film's U.S. distributor. EuropaCorp put together financing for the movie and provided marketing funds, limiting STX's exposure. A passion project for Besson, Valerian is based on the French science-fiction comic series about a young man (played by Dane DeHaan) and woman (Cara Delevingne) who must travel through space and time to save the universe.

Additionally, the laugh meter looks strong for Universal's femme-centric Girls Trip, which is expected to break the R-rated comedy curse and laugh past $20 million in its U.S. launch this weekend. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, who also produced alongside Will Packer, Girls Trip stars Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah as lifelong friends who go to New Orleans for a bawdy weekend of fun.

Girls Trip cost roughly $20 million to produce.

July 20, 10:45 a.m. Updated with international numbers.
July 20, 12:15 p.m. Rotten Tomatoes score updated.