You better watch out

Competition is fierce for Christmas b.o. frame

It may be the season of peace on Earth, but at the boxoffice this holiday weekend it will be all-out war with five new wide releases competing to carve out territory.

Family audiences are expected to flock to the comedy/fantasy "Bedtime Stories" and the canine high jinks of "Marley & Me." Adults can pick between the star-crossed lovers of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and the military assassins of "Valkyrie," while genre fans can head off to graphic-novel adaptation "The Spirit."

Upping the competitive ante, Miramax is moving its awards contender "Doubt" into more than 1,267 theaters in North America. And last weekend's openers "Yes Man" and "Seven Pounds," which were dinged by severe weather across the country, could demonstrate stronger-than-average holds as audiences shovel out.

"It bodes well for all of us because there are a lot of films, and it should be fun for the audience because there are so many choices," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said. "Personally, I think it's going to be a big weekend."

The holiday calendar is certainly cooperating: With Christmas on Thursday, once presents are unwrapped and family gatherings start to wind down, moviegoers are expected to start showing up at the multiplex for Thursday evening performances; Friday should support Saturday-type numbers; and Saturday and Sunday should continue the momentum, the weather gods permitting.

"You have a slightly better calendar when Christmas is on a Wednesday, but that's being picky," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "Christmas on a Thursday is still pretty ideal."

Disney's "Bedtime Stories," opening Christmas Day in more than 3,600 theaters, is positioned to attract families heading en masse to the multiplex. Starring Adam Sandler as an uncle who entertains his niece and nephew with fantastic stories that start to come true all around him, the PG-rated film is directed by Adam Shankman, fresh from the success of "Hairspray." The family-oriented movie won't necessarily appeal to Sandler's usual guy fans, but its mix of comedy, fantasy and special effects looks as if it could attract the same wide demographic that made a hit of the Ben Stiller-starrer "Night at the Museum" two Christmases ago. That movie, which went on to gross an impressive $251 million domestically, enjoyed a three-day opening of $30 million. "Stories" could similarly break into $30 million-plus territory during the four-day weekend, although it does face a more competitive field than "Museum" encountered.

The showdown between "Stories" and "Marley" is expected to be close. With particular interest among women, "Marley," from Fox 2000 and Regency Enterprises, should emerge with a strong second-place showing and a four-day take ranging from the mid-$20 million into the $30 million range. Based on the best-selling memoir by John Grogan and directed by David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada"), the PG-rated movie is bowing in 3,480 theaters. It stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson as a married couple who find their hands full with an rambunctious yellow lab.

Making a bid for adult audiences, the PG-13-rated "Button," a Paramount/Warners co-production, rides into the Christmas Day fray with five Golden Globe noms, three SAG Awards noms and a couple of wins for director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth from the National Board of Review. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star in the luxe version of an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale. The film, making a strong play for older women in hopes of then broadening out to other quadrants, will be hampered a bit by its 2 hour and 45 minute running time, but, as it sets up shop in about 2,900 theaters, it should stake out mid-$20 million turf.

MGM/UA's "Valkyrie" should be the choice of a lot of male moviegoers, appealing to thriller fans and History Channel buffs alike with its account of a conspiracy that attempted to target Adolf Hitler. Tom Cruise, it hardly need be said, stars in the PG-13 feature, directed by Bryan Singer, that bounced around the release schedule before settling on Christmas Day. It appears headed to a final count in the high-teen millions, possibly hitting the $20 million mark at the high end, as it opens in 2,711 theaters.

Filling out the list of newcomers is Lionsgate's "The Spirit," director Frank Miller's PG-13 adaptation of Will Eisner's graphic novel about a cop (Gabriel Macht) who turns into a masked crime fighter. With a cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes, the film should gross somewhere in the teen-millions, which would leave it in the middle of the pack depending on the staying power of holdovers like "Yes Man," "Seven Pounds" and "The Tale of Despereaux."

Among specialty films, the competition will be just as heated. "Doubt," with its high-profile cast headed by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in an ecclesiastical faceoff, is making its first foray into wide release on Christmas Day after two weekends in limited release.

Christmas will also see the exclusive openings of Sony Pictures Classics' critically lauded animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir" and Overture Films' adult romance "Last Chance Harvey," starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. On Friday, Paramount Vantage will raise the curtain on its marital drama "Revolutionary Road," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.