'Saw,' 'Paranormal' look to top busy weekend

'Amelia,' 'Astro Boy' and 'Cirque' also opening wide

Expect bloody competition for the top spot at the weekend boxoffice.

Lionsgate's horror sequel "Saw VI" does battle with Paramount's similarly targeted supernatural thriller "Paranormal Activity" as three other wide openers also hit multiplexes: Fox Searchlight's Hilary Swank starrer "Amelia," Summit's animated feature "Astro Boy" and Universal's John C. Reilly-toplined "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant."

The "Saw" sequel had been expected to perform much in line with franchise predecessors, bowing just north of $30 million to top the weekend rankings. But "Paranormal" has been doing abnormally strong business, first in limited release and last weekend from a barely wide 760 playdates.

"Paranormal" expands again to nearly 2,000 engagements today, making for some unfortunate audience overlap with the Lionsgate pic. But though both pics carry R ratings, "Saw" support comes mostly from younger males, while the notably nongory "Paranormal" plays best among younger females.

All things considered, the "Saw" sequel, set for 3,036 engagements, might find it tough to open higher than $25 million-$30 million, and "Paranormal" should fetch just below that range. But nothing is certain, and the pics' boxoffice brawl should be interesting to watch -- unless you're an exec at Lionsgate or Paramount.

" 'Paranormal Activity' is a phenomenon, and that's obvious now," Lionsgate exec vp distribution David Spitz said. "But we still think that 'Saw VI' will prove to be a phenomenon as well. We expect it to open well and set us up nicely for next year."

Lionsgate soon will announce its intent to release "Saw VII" in 3D next October.

The PG-rated Amelia Earhart biopic "Amelia" should play broadly and vie for some date-night coin Saturday. But its relatively modest distribution in about 800 theaters suggests a debut in the range of $8 million-$10 million.

Critics' support could be key to opening prospects for the Mira Nair-helmed pic, and positive word-of-mouth will be important further along. Early reviews have been lukewarm to positive.

"Tracking is very strong for females over 25," Searchlight senior vp distribution Sheila DeLoach said.

Inspired by 1960s TV cartoon series, the PG-rated "Astro Boy" boasts 3,014 playdates. Young boys and their dads form a target audience, with the film likely to register $10 million or more through Sunday.

Imagi Studios produced the 2D-animated pic at an estimated cost of $65 million, with Summit distributing for a fee.

"Cirque du Freak" is based on a series of books for tween and younger teenage boys. A $10 million-plus bow looks likely for the PG-13 film, which circulates in 2,754 locations.

"We're hopeful we can tap into the audience that the books appeal to," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said.

Last weekend's No. 1 pic, Warner Bros.' Spike Jonze-helmed fantasy "Where the Wild Things Are," will be watched closely after opening with a better-than-expected $32.7 million. Adults outnumbered kids at its opening performances, so "Wild Things" might not display the marketplace hold of a typical family film.

On an industrywide basis, the weekend will be measured against a big $134 million session last year topped by "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" ($42 million) and "Saw V" ($30 million). That could prove a tough comparison, but the market has been strong of late, with year-over-year upticks each of the past two weekends.

Year-to-date, 2009 is pacing 5% ahead of last year at $8.06 billion.