Plenty of life left in 'Bucket List'

Kicks into wide release Friday; Warners could score 4 of top 10

This weekend will be a busy one for those changing movie marquees, but it is an open question whether moviegoers will make it a busy one for the ticket takers.

Warner Bros. had good success in limited release with "The Bucket List," starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as terminal cancer patients trying to life their remaining days to the fullest, which it broadens into wide release today with 2,919 engagements. Even a weekend performance of about $15 million likely would capture the frame, and that could give Warners an incredible four films in the boxoffice top 10.

The distributor still has "I Am Legend," "One Missed Call" and "P.S. I Love You" in wide release, with those films finishing third, fifth and seventh, respectively, last weekend.

Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said audience surveys from limited runs for "Bucket List" have him feeling good about the comedy's prospects in wide release.

"Our exit surveys in the three cities that we were in were some of the best the company has ever had," Fellman said. "Both Morgan and Jack have such an incredible filmography. To see them together is rare, and there is just a chemistry between the two, who are very likable and entertaining."

Fox comedy "Juno" -- which seemed to really hit its stride last weekend -- also could make a run for the roses. It finished No. 2 last weekend with an expansion to 1,925 playdates, after four weeks in more limited release, and today broadens to about 2,400 theaters.

Focus/Working Title's "Atonement" climbs into broader release in about 700 playdates, after platforming to 583 runs last weekend and posting an enviable per-theater average of $8,687.

Picturehouse's Spanish-language horror film "The Orphanage" expands to about 660 engagements from just 66 last weekend, when a $7,256 per-theater average and solid support from the Latino community gave rise to executives' optimism for the frames ahead.

As for this weekend's wide openers, Sony seems likely to do solid urban business with its Ice Cube starrer "First Sunday," so the question will be whether the comedy can also draw well among broader demographics and compete for one of the top rungs in the weekend boxoffice rankings. "Sunday" is set for about 2,000 venues.

Freestyle will try to push into the double-digit millions as it debuts its Jason Statham starrer "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale" in 1,605 theaters.

Universal bows its animated feature "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie" in about 1,200 locations, but the Big Idea-produced film likely will see its boxoffice booty limited to the single-digit millions.

The weekend might have been even busier, but Fox recently moved "27 Dresses" to the Friday before the Jan. 21 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Fox executives said the Katherine Heigl-James Marsden romantic comedy was drawing good response in test screenings, and they wanted to have an additional weekend to offer sneaks.

Fox will offer 617 Sunday afternoon sneak previews of "Dresses."

About 539 sneaks of the movie Fox offered Dec. 27 "went extremely well," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said.

Industrywide, executives hope the many disparate bits of releasing activity this weekend add up to a lucrative whole. So far, 2008 is off 2% from the same portion of last year.

But last weekend seemed to recapture the attention of moviegoers, marking a 5% improvement compared with the same frame of 2007. Friday and Saturday grosses were especially healthy, but several distributors ended up falling short of their Sunday estimates, in part because of inclement weather in parts of the U.S.

This weekend will compare against a lightweight '07 frame when Paramount's Hilary Swank starrer "Freedom Writers" topped three ho-hum openers with $9.4 million.