Loads of 'Treasure' under the tree


Boxoffice weekends just don't come any bigger than this one.

Five wide openers boasting solid appeal in one or more audience demographics are set to unspool Friday. And one of those -- Disney's Nicolas Cage sequel "National Treasure: Books of Secrets" -- has "monster hit" written all over it.

Throw in DreamWorks/Paramount's Johnny Depp-toplined musical "Sweeney Todd," Sony's music-bio spoof "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," Warner Bros.' ladies-get-the-hankies romance "P.S. I Love You" and Universal's Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer "Charlie Wilson's War," and things could get bloody crazy -- or maybe just plain bloody, given the cutthroat competition for screens and moviegoers.

Oh, and by the way, a 50% hold for Warners' "I Am Legend" would give the Will Smith starrer a $38 million sophomore session.

"The marketplace is going to expand, but there's a limit as to how far it can expand," a top distributor said.

Now consider that three more films open wide on Christmas: Fox's action sequel "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem," MGM/Weinstein Co.'s Denzel Washington drama "The Great Debaters" and the Sony-Revolution-Walden family fantasy "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep."

There's simply never been a more crowded Christmas session. Seven wide openers battled it out in 1994 and again in 2001, but eight is a first.

Small wonder that distributors are sputtering to guess what the boxoffice chart might look like once all the dust has settled.

" 'Charlie Wilson's War' could get clobbered," one boxoffice handicapper said.

" 'Sweeney Todd' could end up being this year's 'Rent,' " was the similarly ungenerous assessment of another.

"Walk Hard" shows good audience awareness in prerelease tracking data, but its "first-choice (data) is just OK," another well-placed industry observer said.

Amid such skepticism, it might prove notable that "P.S. I Love You" skews overwhelmingly female, as at least it has a clear target audience.

More fortuitously, two films are perceived as broadly appealing and clear favorites to do big business during the holidays, regardless of how any other releases fare. "Treasure" looks likely to unearth as much as $50 million this weekend, while "Alien vs. Predator" should eat up the boxoffice starting Tuesday and gross up to $35 million through the following Sunday.

"There is definitely business out there to be done," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said. "(But) this particular weekend is the last shopping weekend, so I'm trying to contain my enthusiasm."

Unsuccessfully, it seems. "Treasure" will appeal to "everybody who saw the first one and everybody who wants to go to the movies and have fun," Viane said.

The franchise progenitor opened in November 2004 with $35.1 million. Fox's "Night at the Museum" was No. 1 during last year's pre-Christmas frame with $30.4 million.

Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said he views the "Alien vs. Predator" sequel as youthful counterprogramming to the more adult-oriented fare on offer from other studios.

"It's clearly made for young people -- 18 and older -- who are readily available during the holiday time," Snyder said.

Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco rejected any notion that "Charlie Wilson's War" might get lost in the crowded marketplace.

"Word-of-mouth is going to be so good that we'll be able to capitalize on the early launch," Rocco said. "There's always room in the marketplace for good movies."

Still, it's likely that Universal will consider its first weekend a success if the glitzy drama grosses anywhere in the double-digit millions.

DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd" -- playing in 1,200 or so venues -- might have to be content with high single-digit millions. Likewise Sony with "Walk Hard" and Warners with "P.S. I Love You."

"Debaters," which Washington also directed, will try to springboard off of core black interest and Washington's huge crossover appeal, with $20 million potentially within reach through New Year's.

"Denzel Washington is a real movie star," MGM distribution president Clark Woods said.

"Water Horse" will have to compete against a likely strong second weekend for Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and could struggle to get out of single-digit millions during its first week.

Meanwhile, if the release-packed Christmas period weren't momentous enough, industry boxoffice is about to cross the rarefied $9 billion threshold in a race to the annual finish line.

Year-to-date, data tracker Nielsen EDI -- which figures this weekend should contribute a hefty $200 million to the year's running tally -- said 2007 is pacing 4.9% ahead of the same portion of last year.

There had been considerable year-over-year backsliding through the fall and early holiday boxoffice seasons. But last weekend posted a 35% uptick compared with the same session of 2006, EDI said.

"Now we're gonna finish with a blast," MGM's Woods said. "Every day after Christmas plays like a Saturday, right through New Year's."