'Life as We Know It' a favorite to top weekend

VIDEO: 'My Soul' should make $15 mil, 'Secretariat' less so

Disney's wannabe thoroughbred of a sports drama is limping to the starting gate.

One of three wide releases set to hit domestic multiplexes Friday, "Secretariat" totes a relatively modest production budget and the grossly immodest marketing costs typical of any major studio release. But the frame's other wide openers look a bit hotter to trot.

The Warner Bros. dramedy "Life as We Know It," starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel, should fetch $15 million or more through Sunday, and Rogue Pictures' 3D horror thriller "My Soul to Take" has at least a shot at the mid-teen millions. "Secretariat" would have to break big in the homestretch to reach similar turf as interest still looked light in Thursday's tracking data.

"Secretariat" carries a PG rating and a roughly $32 million price tag, but its marketing costs ran to about $50 million because of the standard pricey TV commercials and other media buys. In a strategy reminiscent of last year's sports drama "The Blind Side," a supplemental grass-roots campaign tied to the pic's inspirational subtext has targeted faith-based groups.

Fairly or not, Hollywood's Monday morning quarterbacks are sure to jump on "Secretariat" if the closely watched pic fails to open well. That's largely because it's the second major release for Disney's new marketing maven MT Carney (following summer disappointment "The Sorcerer's Apprentice").

Directed by Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers"), "Secretariat" is a 1970s-set sports tale about the famous Triple Crown pursuit. Diane Lane portrays racehorse owner Penny Chenery, and the supporting cast includes John Malkovich, Scott Glenn and James Cromwell. Reviews have been largely positive, but tracking appears soft in all demos. The strongest support is with older women.

Disney distribution boss Chuck Viane said he believes "Secretariat" can open in the teen millions and compete for the weekend winner's circle.

"It's looking like a horse race," Viane said with a chuckle. "But I don't think that anybody is going to run away with the weekend."

The clearest historical comparison for "Secretariat" is 2003's "Seabiscuit," which bowed with $20.9 million en route to posting $120.8 million domestically.

Disney staged sneak previews of "Secretariat" in 804 theaters last weekend, with auditoriums at just 59% capacity on average. Of the sneaks patrons, 55% were ages 35 or older and 55% were females, with family and date-couple patrons notably in the mix as well.

Warners offered sneak previews of "Life" in 811 locations last weekend, drawing 60%-capacity audiences comprising more than 70% females and 50% patrons ages 30 or older. Rated PG-13, "Life" was produced for an estimated $35 million, with Village Roadshow co-financing.

"We had a terrific response, and we will keep building the momentum this week," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said.

"Soul" should skew much younger than "Secretariat" or "Life" despite the horror pic's R rating. Universal has distribution rights in the U.S. and Alliance in Canada, with "Soul" set for almost 1,800 3D locations among 2,412 total domestic engagements.

Friday's limited openers include Overture's "Stone," a dramatic thriller starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich that's set for exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles. The R-rated pic represents the last Overture release before its operations are swept up into Relativity branding.

Sony Pictures Classics unspools the Stephen Frears-directed "Tamara Drewe," an R-rated comedy starring Gemma Arterton, in two locations in New York and two in L.A. The specialty distributor also will bow the financial-crisis documentary "Inside Job" in a pair of New York theaters.

Industrywide, the frame will be compared with last year's $110 million session topped by the $34.3 million debut of Uni's "Couples Retreat."

Year-to-date box office is pacing 4% ahead of last year, at $8.11 billion.