'Time Traveler,' 'District 9' challenge 'Joe'

'Ponyo' expected to debut strong

Five wide releases hitting theaters in mid-August smack of inventory-clearing, yet one of the pics appears a candidate to become a late-summer sleeper hit and another could reap solid counter-programming business.

A well-received promo event at Comic-Con stoked prerelease buzz on Sony sci-fi actioner "District 9," and early reviews for the Peter Jackson-produced film have been fervid. Helmed by Neill Blomkamp -- a commercials director getting his first feature credit -- the R-rated pic is tracking best with young males, and a debut north of $25 million looks likely.

"It's a picture that will open well and then can continue to broaden," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said. "It's got a lot of facets to it. On the surface it's a science fiction picture, but it's more. The movie has a lot of heart."

Based on Blomkamp's film short "Alive in Joburg," "District 9" was shot in Johannesburg and tells the story of extraterrestrials who become refugees in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. bows literary adaptation "The Time Traveler's Wife" with the intent of capturing females out to avoid "District 9." Tracking shows strong interest in Warners' romantic fantasy among younger and older women alike, thanks to the best-selling novel of the same name.

"That's what sets it apart," Warners distribution topper Dan Fellman said.

Audiences packed with older gals dished up a $20 million opening for Sony's "Julie & Julia" last weekend.

Elsewhere among the wide openers, Summit Entertainment debuts the high school comedy "Bandslam" with more modest aims. Co-produced by Walden Media, the PG-rated pic should gross into the lower double-digit millions based on decent interest among teens and tweens.

Paramount unspools the R-rated comedy "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard," starring Jeremy Piven and Ving Rhames, amid soft prerelease interest, suggesting a bow in the mid- to high single-digit millions. Its Paramount Vantage branding is more because of the pic's modest budget rather than any high-brow pretensions.

"It's a straight-out commercial comedy," Par executive vp distribution Don Harris said.

Also this weekend, Disney sends out its English-dubbed version of "Ponyo" from Japanese animation king Hayao Miyazaki with 800-plus playdates. The English voice cast for "Ponyo" includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey and 9-year-old Noah Cyrus, as a goldfish aspiring to become human, in her first feature role.

Despite its barely wide theater count, a sum in the mid- to high single-digit millions seems doable for the family fantasy. "Ponyo" was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid."

Industryites also will be watching last weekend's chart-topper from Paramount -- the military actioner "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" -- for signs of whether it will sustain that first-frame momentum or drop momentously.

Limited releases this weekend include Sony Pictures Classics' musical docu "It Might Get Loud," set for seven playdates.

On an industrywide basis, the weekend will be compared with a $125 million frame last year that was topped by the $25.8 million bow by Paramount's DreamWorks-produced comedy "Tropic Thunder."