Box Office Guru Preview: Death Race Shoots for Pole Position

Also: House Bunny, The Rocker, The Longshots try to open strong.

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The ancient studio ritual of dumping weak product into the late August box office has begun. Four new releases, most about failures trying to redeem themselves, hit the multiplexes with only one having the strength to make a play for the number one spot. Universal launches the latest Jason Statham action pic Death Race while Fox and Sony counter with their competing teen-skewing comedies The Rocker and The House Bunny, respectively. Ice Cube also joins the mix with MGM's family sports film The Longshots. Given the aging holdovers, lack of firepower from debuting titles, and the final weekend of the Olympics which has been keeping 30 million people at home every night, the overall marketplace is sure to slow down. Look for the top ten to slump below the $100M mark for the first time since April.

Action star Jason Statham hits the big screen once again, this time playing a driver out to win an insane reality competition where convicts race and kill each other in order to win their freedom in Death Race. The R-rated pic will play to the actor's core audience of young men in search of mindless short-term thrills and spills. Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, and Joan Allen co-star while Paul W.S. Anderson directs. The helmer has had great luck entertaining this audience with past hits like Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and Alien vs. Predator. Statham himself has a good track record with action movies opening on or around Labor Day weekend. 2005's Transporter 2 bowed to $16.5M, the following year's Crank debuted to $10.5M, while last year his War opened softer with $9.8M. Death Race is not a Transporter film (the next one attacks on Thanksgiving weekend) so grosses should be closer to those of the others.

Summer movie audiences have had their fill of action so non-Statham fans will not be coming out in big numbers. Both Tropic Thunder and The Dark Knight will be formidable opponents playing to most of the same folks. Universal's quartet of summer actioners has grossed a spectacular $430M so there's just only so much more it can squeeze out of the last weeks of the season. But the star and the director both have scored in this genre so a good number of young males, especially frequent multiplex-goers, will come out and spend a little cash. Statham is no Will Smith, but he does attract a respectable number of fans each and every time. Racing into 2,400 theaters, Death Race may open to about $13M.


Jason Statham in Death Race

Fox aims to grab some biz from bored teens not yet back in school with its Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker. The PG-13 film features The Office star playing a failed former drummer who joins a new band run by his adolescent nephew. Overall excitement is not very high and Wilson will have to prove himself here as a leading man. Fellow NBC star Andy Samberg tried anchoring his own immature comedy last August with Hot Rod which flopped with a weak $5.3M debut and dismal $2,037 average. Rocker may do better, but not by much. Most of the target audience will probably wait for the DVD here. The studio already opened the pic on Wednesday to get two extra days of summer play. Younger kids who can't get into all the R-rated antics of Ferrell, Rogen, and Stiller will make up a big part of the audience for this one and its family-friendly packaging could prompt some parents to give it a go. But overall, the film lacks the buzz to become a standout performer. Now playing in 2,627 sites, The Rocker could take in about $8M over three days and $11M over five days.


Rainn Wilson and crew in The Rocker

Anna Faris takes a break from spoofing horror flicks and headlines the college comedy The House Bunny. The PG-13 film finds the actress playing a former Playboy bunny who takes a job as the leader of a sorority of misfits. Sony is gunning for teens and young adults of both genders here with a central story about young women with some sex appeal that might bring in some guys. The premise isn't half bad so a decent showing may result. But Faris is no guaranteed draw at the box office when outside of her safe zone in the Scary Movie franchise. There's no evidence to prove that she can sell tickets and the film lacks any other star names. Plus The Rocker will be going after many of the same folks in search of laughs. Opening in about 2,600 locations, The House Bunny might gross about $8M this weekend.


Anna Faris in The House Bunny

After conquering the inept-man-takes-care-of-children genre with Are We There Yet?, Ice Cube swaggers over to the equally popular inspirational-sports-coach category with The Longshots. The PG-rated pic features the star of music and film as a former football player who turns his 11-year-old niece into a local pigskin heroine. Fred Durst, rap-rock pioneer of yesteryear, directs. It would be too easy to compare the film's title to its box office prospects. Starpower is low, marketing buzz is minimal, and the name of the film could not be more bland. Studios have failed at providing worthwhile content to families since the release of WALL?E and this entry will be forgotten just like the others. The MGM release could take in about $6M this weekend from 2,000 sites.


Ice Cube and crew in The Longshots

Rocking Sundance earlier this year and now making a stab at commercial success is Hamlet 2, the story of a high school drama teacher and his students who try to stage a raunchy sequel to Shakespeare's classic play. Focus paid a near-record $10M to acquire worldwide rights and hopes that it has a Little Miss Sunshine on its hands. That late summer indie comedy opened to scorching numbers in limited release and went on to earn four major Oscar nominations including Best Picture and $59.9M at the box office. Hamlet 2 stars Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue, and Amy Poehler and is using its rating as a marketing tool with ads that feature an extra large bright red R telling arthouse filmgoers that they are in for some envelope-pushing humor here not meant for little kids. Opening in only 90 playdates in major markets, Hamlet 2 is set to post a muscular average before heading into national release over the Labor Day holiday frame when word-of-mouth is expected to sell it further. The abundance of R-rated studio comedies will certainly have an effect, but the void for smarthouse laughs will give Focus a big opportunity to cash in on territory usually monopolized by Fox Searchlight. For this weekend, a bow of about $1.5M could result.


Steve Coogan and crew in Hamlet 2

Hoping for back-to-back gold medals, Tropic Thunder will try to fend off competition from all the new releases and defend its box office title. Direct competition will come primarily from Death Race as it also is targeting adult men. The remaining newcomers will not steal away too much of Ben Stiller's crowd. Look for the Paramount war comedy to drop by 45% to around $14M giving the R-rated pic $63M in 12 days and a solid chance at joining the century club.

Warner Bros. will see another terrific hold for its runaway smash The Dark Knight which could slip by just 35%. That would give the superhero film around $10.5M which would lift the overall domestic tally to $489M. The $500M barrier should be broken by Labor Day. The studio's animated title Star Wars: The Clone Wars will suffer a steep tumble since there is no real buzz to keep it going and hardcore fans have already made it out. Look for a 55% decline to about $6.5M pushing the ten-day tally to $26M.

LAST YEAR: With the summer movie season coming to a close and the Top 20 barely breaking $100M, none of the five new releases managed to break into the top three slots. The high school comedy Superbad remained at number one with $18M in its second weekend and was followed by threequel holdovers The Bourne Ultimatum and Rush Hour 3 with $12.5M and $11.7M, respectively. Debuting ahead of all the other new offerings was the family sequel Mr. Bean's Holiday with $9.9M for Universal followed closely by Lionsgate's Jet Li-Jason Statham actioner War with $9.8M. Final grosses reached $33.3M and $22.5M, respectively. The Nanny Diaries bowed in sixth with $7.5M finishing with $25.9M for MGM. Opening poorly outside of the top ten were Resurrecting the Champ and Illegal Tender with respective takes of $1.7M and $1.4M. The pair reached $3.2M and $3.1M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

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