Sony has an ace to club 'Horton'

Studio's card-counting '21' has formula to end elephant's reign

Don't bet the house on "Horton."

It would take an exceptional third-session hold by "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" for Fox's family comedy to three-peat atop the domestic boxoffice. And though none of the four wide openers appears to be a sure shot to topple the animated feature from the top position, Sony's card-counting drama "21" is a strong lead candidate.

"We're certainly in the game to be No. 1 this weekend," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said, hedging his bets appropriately.

"21" revolves around a group of college math whizzes out to beat the odds in Las Vegas, so its release at the tail end of spring break probably is helpful. About 35% of public school students are free from classes today, and 17% still will be on spring break Monday.

Kevin Spacey's role as a professor involved in the gambling scheme will help with older demos. In fact, prerelease tracking is strongest for older males, with younger males close behind and female demos also showing decent interest.

An opening somewhere in the midteen millions seems a safe proposition for "21," but a $20 million-plus opening isn't out of the question.

Elsewhere, MGM/Dimension's PG-13 superhero spoof "Superhero Movie" will play mostly to teens and could gross as high as the low- to midteen millions.

Prerelease tracking during the past couple of weeks suggested something a bit lower than that range. But younger patrons are famous for making last-minute decisions on moviegoing, and core support was expected to strengthen.

Paramount's Iraq War drama "Stop-Loss" will play in fewer than half as many venues as "21" and "Superhero" as prospects for the film appear grim.

Simply put, the American public has gotten no more interested in the Iraq War during the past year. So it's no more likely to support this movie about the military mission than any of the other previous boxoffice flops on the subject.

Amid such low expectations, a debut of $4 million or more would be cause for joy at Paramount. Executives have done extensive research among prospective moviegoers about their attitude toward war films and subsequently are reining in even best-case scenarios accordingly.

Picturehouse held 110 sneak previews of its British comedy "Run Fat Boy Run" last weekend. Starring Simon Pegg and directed by David Schwimmer, the PG-13 "Fat Boy" drew 50% capacity audiences, with the average age of patrons running slightly older than expected.

"Early reviews have been a bit mixed, but patron word-of-mouth will be even more key in the film's playability over future frames," Picturehouse president Bob Berney said. "If we can get them in, it plays terrific."

Also this weekend, Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Co. expand their Spanish- language America Ferrera starrer "Under the Same Moon" from 124 runs to 390 locations.

Meanwhile, "Horton," which grossed $24.6 million during its sophomore session for an $86 million cume, is about to give Fox this year's first $100 million grosser. That's partly a function of the year's recent sluggishness, as 2007 had three films hit the milestone by this time.

Yet despite six of the past seven weekends underperforming the comparable year-ago frame, 2008 is still pacing 1% ahead of the same portion of last year, according to Nielsen EDI.