'Princess' poised to reign at boxoffice

VIDEO: Ani film eyes $25 mil take; 'Invictus' opens wide

Studio rivals have made Clint's day.

Warner Bros. unspools Clint Eastwood's sports drama "Invictus" on Friday as the weekend's sole wide opener. The session won't be competition-free, but the relatively uncluttered launch pad should help the pic's marketing.

Prerelease tracking surveys have shown relatively light must-see sentiment for the Eastwood-helmed film so far. But that hasn't rattled studio executives, who know the hyphenate's pics tend to start slow but play long.

Also, early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

"Word-of-mouth is going to take over and do the heavy lifting," Warners distribution boss Dan Fellman predicted.

But "Invictus" is not expected to win the weekend. Disney goes wide with its animated feature "The Princess and the Frog," following two weekends of exclusive engagements in Los Angeles and New York. The G-rated pic, which also is drawing favorable notices, should play broadly and top weekend rankings with $25 million or more through Sunday.

"We will win the weekend, without question," Disney distribution topper Chuck Viane said. "But we're about a week before kids will get out of school for the holidays, so it will play like it would on a normal weekend and not as strongly as it might if the kids were off on Friday."

Helpfully, films opening two frames before Christmas tend to mount leggy runs, though it will bear watching how Fox's twin holiday tentpoles affect "Frog's" staying power. James Cameron's sci-fi actioner "Avatar" bows Dec. 18, and family sequel "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" debuts midweek Dec. 23.

"Frog" boasts nearly $3 million in cumulative boxoffice from its high-grossing exclusives, which featured special added attractions and premium ticket prices.

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Support for "Invictus," a PG-13 pic about the role of the national rugby team in post-apartheid South Africa, likely will skew heavily toward older adults. Topliners include Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the rugby team's captain, with a bow in the $12 million-$14 million range looking likely.

That could have it knocking heads with Warners' Sandra Bullock starrer "The Blind Side" in a fight for second place on the frame. "Blind Side" totes a $135 million cume into its fourth weekend.

Limited openers set for Friday include Paramount's Peter Jackson-helmed book adaptation "The Lovely Bones." Starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Stanley Tucci, "Bones" is set for three playdates.

Elsewhere, a handful of prestige titles are mounting notable expansions, seeking to exploit awards-season publicity. Those include Par's George Clooney starrer "Up in the Air," which adds 57 theaters for a total of 72 as the Jason Reitman-directed dramatic comedy builds on an auspicious $1.5 million start.

The National Board of Review recently selected Clooney and Freeman to share 2009 acting accolades for "Air" and "Invictus," respectively, and lauded Eastwood as best director for the latter. The group also named "Air" the year's best film.

Also this frame, the Weinstein Co. broadens the Viggo Mortensen starrer "The Road" to 135 locations, up from 111. "Road" has traveled to a $3.5 million cume since its Nov. 25 bow.

On an industrywide basis, this weekend will be compared to a $92 million frame from last year topped by the $30.5 million bow of Fox's sci-fi actioner "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The industry has outperformed its year-over-year comparisons for the past two weekends.

Distributors are closing in on the 12-month boxoffice record with four frames remaining. Year-to-date, 2009 is pacing 6.2% ahead of the same portion of last year at $9.44 billion.

If the boxoffice momentum is sustained, the industry also will surpass its 2008 ticket sales. When calculated, annual ticket-price inflation is likely to account for about 5% of the boxoffice increase.