'Wolverine' to test 'Star Trek' bow

Holdover may cause new release to fall short of expectations

Like colliding asteroids, a major sci-fi release and a holdover tentpoler will clash in the marketplace this weekend in a megacompetitive session sure to test the mettle of boxoffice forecasters.

Among the imponderables:

-- Can a late surge in must-see interest lift Paramount's sci-fi prequel "Star Trek" to an opening on the order of last weekend's $85.1 million debut for Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"?

-- How badly will the "Trek" bow hurt "Wolverine" in its sophomore session -- and vice versa?

The questions are so intertwined as to defy easy answers, but that hasn't stopped speculation.

Many industryites suggest that "Trek" will fall at least a bit short of matching the domestic debut of "Wolverine" because of a more narrowly drawn fan base for the Par film. Yet they note that "Trek" seems to be gaining market momentum, with a definite uptick in awareness and interest among prospective patrons amid roundly positive early reviews.

Also, most of the more than 3,800 theaters playing "Trek" this weekend have scheduled pic "previews" for as early as 7 p.m. Thursday, which should pad the opening substantially. Pacific Theatres' ArcLight Hollywood programmed a "members only" performance for 5 p.m. Thursday, with that coin and other early grosses to be recorded as Friday boxoffice.

"Trek" playdates include 138 giant-screen venues sure to generate outsized grosses in one of Imax's biggest day-and-date release of a commercial film. The Imax playdates are scheduled for two weeks only.

"This is right in our wheelhouse," Imax Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster said. "It's a demographic that loves Imax -- the crowd -- and there's also a cool factor to it. Of course, the fans will want to dress up for it, and we can help event-ize all of that."

"Wolverine" -- which continues to play in more than 4,000 theaters -- rang up almost $5 million from more than 1,500 midnight Thursday performances a week ago. The Hugh Jackman starrer is widely expected to fall more than 60% from its opening tally, so the real question is, simply, how much more?

"Word-of-mouth and female support should carry us, even with a big picture like 'Star Trek' coming into the marketplace," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "We should be able to continue our positive run and gross well without disappearing."

Also this weekend, Summit Entertainment unspools the likely urban-skewing action pic "Next Day Air."

Rated R, "Air" was directed by hip-hop video director Benny Boom and stars rapper-actor Mos Def and Donald Faison of ABC's "Scrubs." Prospects for the modestly budgeted pic appear limited to single-digit millions.

The J.J. Abrams-helmed "Trek" -- which casts young actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Capt. James Kirk and Spock, respectively -- was produced for a reported $140 million, including splashy visual effects from George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic. Spyglass Entertainment is a 25% equity participant on the pic.

Prerelease interest is strongest among males 25 and older, though there has been a late-breaking surge of interest among younger males. Females appear notably less enamored with "Trek" than they have been with Jackman and "Wolverine."

Meanwhile, there's one more area of debate in advance of the "Trek" bow: How big must it open to be considered a successful launch? Paramount execs claim that they will be happy with anything north of $50 million, as the aim with the prequel is to rejuvenate the franchise and not necessarily to register huge first-frame grosses.

"The company's position is that it's just not in the cards," Par senior vp distribution Don Harris said of the prospect of matching the "Wolverine" bow. "But with the Thursday night performances, there should be a good chance of getting excellent word-of-mouth going."

Indeed, the more positive "Trek" reviews have some suggesting that the true measure of success is whether it can leg it to a better cume than "Wolverine" over their respective theatrical runs.

"This is a movie that's going to play to a better 'multiple' than the usual summer tentpole," Par vice chairman Rob Moore said, using industry vernacular for the ratio between a pic's opening and its cume.

Still, this is an industry obsessed with first-frame performance.

Last weekend, there was broad agreement "Wolverine" -- produced for a reported $150 million -- had pulled off a solid debut despite negative reviews and other challenges. But naysayers noted that it underperformed the $102 million bow by Par's "Iron Man" during the first weekend of summer 2008.

The most obvious comparison for "Trek" will be against the franchise's previous openings. But that's setting the bar a bit low, and none of the previous "Trek" films cost as much to make or market as the latest.

The most recent installment -- 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis" -- unspooled with $18.5 million, en route to registering $43.3 million overall domestically. The top opener among 10 previous "Trek" pics was 1996's "Star Trek: First Contact," which debuted with $30.7 million and rung up $92 million domestically.

It also will bear watching how the latest "Trek" does internationally, where it bows day-and-date in 54 countries, or slightly more than half the number of foreign territories "Wolverine" is in. Much has changed in the global marketplace during the seven years since the previous "Trek" release, but the franchise has tended to be an overseas laggard.