'Iron Man' to debut Thursday

First summer tentpole unspools in spring

Summer's first tentpole release will actually unspool in the final four hours of the spring boxoffice season.

Paramount has scheduled Marvel-produced "Iron Man" for 2,000-plus "special advance screenings" at 8 p.m. Thursday. That may lower the comic-book action pic's weekend gross just a tad, but the Robert Downey Jr. starrer is still looking likely to ring up an impressive $70 million or more Friday through Sunday.

This is the season when always-cautious studio execs are anxious to manage overly exuberant expectations for their biggest summer releases. Yet even they acknowledge "Iron Man" is all but guaranteed to open with more than $60 million over its first weekend.

The summer-launching event pic has been tracking hugely in pre-release surveys. Pic awareness and must-see sentiment are so broad that only one studio has scheduled a rival wide release for this weekend, when Sony will hope its Patrick Dempsey starrer "Made of Honor" can attract a few women in search of something fresh besides "Iron Man."

So Paramount and Marvel have the weekend to themselves.

"Iron Man" totes perhaps $150 million in production costs and another $75 million tab for prints and advertising, but execs are feeling quietly confident over how the pic's opening prospects are shaping up.

"It feels like we should have a very rewarding weekend," Par vice chairman Rob Moore allowed.

Marvel launches its slate of wholly financed productions with "Iron Man." Par put up all of the P&A, which it will recoup along with an unspecified distribution fee.

"For a first movie for Marvel as a standalone movie studio, I don't think we could be prouder," Marvel Studios marketing topper Geoff Ammer said.

"Iron Man" is also set for 2,000-plus midnight Thursday showtimes, but those grosses will be included in Friday tallies. The pic then is certain to get more than 4,000 playdates starting with Friday matinees, with double- and triple-screening yielding a screen count more than twice as high.

Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" set a new high for playdates last May, when it bowed with a total 4,362 engagements. Sony's 2007-topping comic-book sequel "Spider-Man 3" holds print-run bragging rights after playing on more than 9,000 screens last summer.

"Iron-Man" is also set to open Friday in most major foreign territories except Japan, where billionaire playboy Tony Stark and his pricey iron playsuit will hit movie screens just a few weeks later.

As for the Thursday night playdates diluting some of Friday's domestic tally on "Iron Man," Par's strategy hinges on the premise that the early showtimes will create word of mouth and stimulate bigger Saturday grosses. The studio is betting that the pic will ring up more total opening business with the Thursday screenings than it would with a simple Friday-through-Sunday debut.

That means that the pic's ranking amid top three-day boxofficer grossers will suffer a bit in the industry record books. But that's much less important than the opening's total gross in this era of one-week-wonder tentpoles.

For though "Iron Man" has attracted positive early reviews and could prove leggy, just one week after its opening weekend Warners sends out the summer's second big event pic, "Speed Racer," over a Mothers Day frame that will also feature Fox's Cameron Diaz-Ashton Kutcher starrer "What Happens in Vegas."