'Wolverine' looks to dominate weekend

Fox's buzzed-about title likely to open with at least $80 mil

'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' review
'Ghosts of Girlfriends Past' review

It's a little early to start lathering on the Coppertone with even Memorial Day still weeks away, but Hollywood's summertime fun officially begins at midnight Thursday.

As customary since May tentpoles started popping up more than a decade ago, the industry kicks off its most lucrative boxoffice season this weekend with the release of a much-buzzed action title. A spinoff of the studio's successful "X-Men" film franchise, Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" looks likely to open with at least $80 million domestically -- though Fox execs insist even a $70 million bow would be acceptable on the pic, which cost the studio a reported $150 million to produce.

Many of Thursday night's roughly 1,500 midnight performances for "Wolverine" have sold out, so Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder expressed cautious optimism Wednesday over the Hugh Jackman starrer's weekend prospects.

"With the presales for tonight's midnight shows and what we understand the presales to be for the weekend, we expect to have a wonderful weekend at the boxoffice," Snyder said.

Unlike several pics Marvel Studios is self-producing at Paramount, "Wolverine" is simply a licensing deal for Marvel at Fox.

The weekend performance of "Wolverine" will be compared with last year's surprisingly strong season-starter, "Iron Man." Paramount unspooled the Robert Downey Jr.-toplined superhero pic with $102.1 million last May, registering $318.4 million overall domestically.

Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" leads the list of summer openers after debuting with $158.4 million last July en route to a $533.3 million domestic haul. "X-Men: The Last Stand" -- the second and most recent franchise sequel -- sits at No. 6 on the list after bowing with $122.9 million in May 2006 and grossing $234.4 million domestically, while the opening for leggy "Iron Man" ranks No. 12 on the summer list.

Two other wide openers are also set for this weekend, both representing counterprogramming plays. Despite the long shadow "Wolverine" will cast over the marketplace, distributors discovered several years ago that the early start to summer breaks on many college campuses can lend an early-season heft to all sorts of younger-skewing pics.

With that in mind, Warner Bros.' romantic comedy "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" will shrug off indifferent reviews and ring up teen millions or more -- mostly from young girls and some date-night biz -- while Lionsgate's 3-D animated feature "Battle for Terra" should see enough dads dragged to the multiplexes by young sons to fetch at least $5 million-$7 million. Lionsgate is a distributor-for-hire for Roadside Attractions on "Terra," which features 460 3-D venues among 1,161 total playdates.

Directed by Gavin Hood -- a multihyphenate whose feature credits include the dramas "Rendition" and "Tsotsi" -- "Wolverine" has been tracking best in pre-release surveys with young males. Yet its market profile is a bit more diffuse than a typical fanboy pic and suggests an opening like that of "Iron Man," were it not for problems from illegal downloading of an early pirated version of the film.

"We're not sure what the illegal downloads mean to the boxoffice," Snyder said.

"Wolverine" also bows this week in 101 foreign territories in one of the studio's more ambitious recent day-and-date campaigns.

In the U.S. and Canada, "Wolverine" will play on almost 8,000 screens in about 4,100 theaters. Its opening will also be compared with the three "X-Men" pics, each of which outpaced its predecessor at home and abroad throughout each theatrical run:

-- "X-Men" bowed in July 2000 with $54.5 million domestically and grossed $157.3 million in the U.S. and Canada, part of a $296.3 million worldwide tally.

-- "X2: X-Men United" debuted in May 2003 with $85.6 million while ringing up $214.9 million overall domestically and $407.7 million on a worldwide basis.

-- "Last Stand" fetched $459.4 million in worldwide boxoffice.

In addition to its piracy woes, "Wolverine" may be hampered by buzz on fan sites perhaps best characterized as neutral to negative. But is should surely help that the domestic boxoffice market has been especially robust of late, with the industry notching five straight year-over-year upticks in recent weekends.

Combined with distributors' increasing tendency to spread their big releases more evenly throughout the boxoffice year, the booming boxoffice has had exhibitors pinching themselves.

"We feel like we've been in summer all year," said John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners.