Wedding bash vs. monster mash

Well-sneaked 'Dresses' tries on Web-buzzworthy 'Cloverfield'

The pre-Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend is a biggie for moviegoing, and distributors sometimes will throw the occasional sharp elbow if it helps stake claim to prime holiday real estate.

This year's jockeying saw Fox move its romantic comedy "27 Dresses" back one week just before its scheduled release date. That hit the industry's releasing grids with all the aplomb of a pro wrestler jumping the ropes for a sneaky takedown.

The maneuver gave the distributor another weekend to offer sneak previews of the Katherine Heigl-James Marsden starrer. But executives also stressed that early test screenings of the film had been going so well that they decided to plop the picture into the middle of the pre-MLK action, when Sunday business will be strengthened by employees and students having the following day off.

The sneaks on "Dresses" -- co-produced and co-financed by Spyglass Entertainment -- went over well Dec. 27 and again Sunday, Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said.

"We're very comfortable," he said. "The two sneaks have set the table, and we feel we're ready to open well."

Striving to prove the recent truism that wedding themes equal boxoffice gold, "Dresses" is set for more than 3,000 playdates. Over the three days, the film could land north of $20 million but surely will reach that mark through the MLK holiday.

Fox's biggest competition for weekend bragging rights is a beast -- literally.

Paramount's PG-13 sci-fi monster film "Cloverfield" surely will skew young and probably heavily male as it also bows in more than 3,000 theaters. Internet buzz on the film has been huge, but the question remains whether oft-fickle younger moviegoers will follow up all that cyber chat with energetic ticket purchases.

Amid that sort of iffiness -- even memory-challenged industry figures can remember 2006's "Snakes on a Plane" disappointment -- Paramount insiders insist that "Dresses" is the leading candidate to win the weekend. But many expect "Cloverfield" to flex its genre muscles mightily and capture the weekend laurels.

Anything less than $20 million would represent a disappointment for "Cloverfield." But should the Paramount film -- toting a production budget of just $25 million -- get to $30 million over four days, Par executives will be popping the bubbly.

The 2001 military action film "Black Hawk Down" represents the best-ever MLK weekend, stretching a three-day gross of $28.6 million to $33 million through the Monday holiday.

Elsewhere this weekend, Overture debuts its slate of modestly budgeted films when it bows the female-skewing comedy "Mad Money" in about 2,000 locations.

Starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes, "Money" aims to cash in with somewhere in the low-double-digit millions over four days. Any shot at a bigger "Money" score was killed once "Dresses" was moved to the same weekend.

Warner Bros. execs hope to post a decent Week 2 hold for last weekend's No. 1 film, the Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman starrer "The Bucket List." If the older-skewing comedy can gross half as much as in its first frame of wide release, "Bucket" would fill Warners' coffers with about $10 million.

DreamWorks-Paramount plans an important expansion for its "Sweeney Todd," giving the Johnny Depp starrer a few hundred additional playdates after its Golden Globe victory in the musical/comedy category. The Tim Burton-helmed film will jump from 1,323 theaters to more than 1,600.

Meanwhile, industry execs will be hoping to post a third consecutive year-over-year uptick in weekend grosses. The past two sessions were marked by modest improvements, and distributors and exhibitors hope to build on that momentum during the coming winter frames.

Year-to-date, 2008 is off 7% from the same portion of last year.