Box Office Guru Preview: Comedy vs. Cannibals at the Multiplexes

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Moviegoers get to choose between a master comic taking on three roles or a diabolical screen villain in his early years when they walk into their local multiplex this weekend.

Eddie Murphy stars in the outrageous comedy "Norbit" which is looking to rule the frame by pulling in teens while the dark thriller "Hannibal Rising" will play to an older adult audience interested in gruesome brutality. There should be little overlap between the audiences of the two films so each will have room to breathe and reach its potential. With the Super Bowl now history, Hollywood is looking for the marketplace to bounce back and score its biggest opening yet this year.

Movie fans adore films about loveable losers and the latest to add its name to the hit list is "Norbit." The PG-13 film stars Eddie Murphy as both a shy nerdy man and his vivacious wife who is large and in charge. The comic legend also plays a Chinese man who raised the title character when he was a child. Acting jobs were actually given to others too including Thandie Newton, Eddie Griffin, and Cuba Gooding Jr. The Paramount release seamlessly integrates the two Murphys on screen and the crude envelope-pushing humor will guarantee that every 15-year-old shows up on opening weekend. The marketing push has been solid too. "Night at the Museum"'s stellar box office run is proof of the hunger for big star-driven comedies and "Norbit" is finally the next biggie that will generate some major cash.

Timing for "Norbit" is pitch perfect. Murphy's Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for "Dreamgirls" has given him plenty of heat and media exposure over the last several weeks. With Valentine's Day right around the corner, the date crowd certainly could be looking for something fun to go out and see this weekend. Plus, Black History Month adds an extra spotlight to African American stars and the former Axel Foley is among the most reliable draws of any black actor working today with immensely broad appeal. And the box office needs a big hit to kick things in gear as for three consecutive weekends, no film has managed to sell at least $20M worth of tickets.

Murphy has spent much of the last decade doing family-friendly films and hasn't had an all-out comedy smash since 2000's "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" which opened in July of that year to $42.5M on its way to $123.3M. Fans turned out in droves to see the funnyman put on fat suits and play multiple characters that were rude and crude and led the sequel to a gross that nearly matched the original's $128.8M from the summer of 1996. After all these years, moviegoers will certainly want another helping. Crashing into around 3,000 theaters, "Norbit" might see itself grossing $31M this weekend.

Eddie Murphy and, uh, Eddie Murphy in "Norbit."

Now that movie buffs know the whole story of Darth Vader's teen years, another popular screen villain gets his puberty tale told in "Hannibal Rising." The R-rated revenge flick tells the story of a young Mr. Lecter who seeks vengeance on those who killed his young sister. Along the way, we see how his love of eating flesh and human butchery came about. MGM and The Weinstein Company are hoping to lure in fans of the previous installments of the saga. Certainly 2001's "Hannibal" and 2002's "Red Dragon" proved that money could still be made despite the losses of director Jonathan Demme and actress Jodie Foster, both of whom won Oscars for 1991's "Silence of the Lambs." Now, the real test for the franchise will come as Anthony Hopkins is no longer in the cast. However, part of his image is used in a clever way in the television spots that could fool some folks.

Many of the adult fans of the first films will definitely take a pass on "Hannibal Rising" since leads Gaspard Ulliel and Gong Li just don't sell tickets. But curiosity and the brand name will attract some in the first week, especially those who crave brutality and a little cannibalism in their weekend fun. Long-term prospects look weak. The new chapter is not likely to approach the $36.5M opening of "Red Dragon" and will only see a fraction of the $58M bow of "Hannibal" which shattered the February opening weekend record six years ago when it opened on the exact same day. Bad reviews will not help much either. While its three predecessors all debuted in the top spot, this latest tale should find itself eating into the runnerup spot. "Hannibal Rising" opens in about 2,900 theaters on Friday and could gross roughly $15M for the weekend.

Gaspard Ulliel in "Hannibal Rising."

Last weekend, the spooky thriller "The Messengers" beat out the Diane Keaton comedy "Because I Said So" for the top spot, but the chick flick has been winning the weekdays ranking first on Monday and Tuesday. The Sony horror flick should see the steeper drop especially with Eddie stealing the teen vote and fall 55% to about $7M for a ten-day total of $24M. "Said So" may decline by 45% and rake in a similar $7M for a cume of $23M after ten days for Universal.

LAST YEAR: New releases flooded into the marketplace swiping the top four spots for the frame. Leading the way was the much-delayed Steve Martin comedy remake "The Pink Panther" which bowed to $20.2M on its way to $82.2M for Sony. Close behind was the horror sequel "Final Destination 3" with $19.2M leading to a $54.1M final for New Line. Bowing in third was the animated kidpic "Curious George" with $14.7M while Harrison Ford slumped into fourth with his action pic "Firewall" which opened to $13.6M. Final grosses reached $58.4M for the Universal toon and $48.8M for the techno thriller from Warner Bros. The fright flick "When a Stranger Calls" dropped 58% from first to fifth and collected $9.1M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya,