Box Office Preview: Pirates To Loot Box Office Treasure

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Multiplexes are stocking up on popcorn and soda in anticipation of the massive crowds expected to descend upon them on Friday for the opening of the highly anticipated adventure sequel "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Rival studios all backed off this weekend when Disney first claimed it as nobody wanted to challenge Captain Jack Sparrow and his mighty treasure-seeking companions. After its top spot debut, reigning champ "Superman Returns" will have a big task ahead of it as the super hero film tries to keep audiences from fleeing in its all-important second weekend. With "Pirates" and "Superman" leading the way, the North American box office looks to zoom higher than last year and even seems strong enough to soar past 2004's lofty heights.

For the first time in company history, Disney will break the 4,000 theater mark with the launch of its new "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel. The PG-13 film reunites the cast and crew of the 2003 megablockbuster with Gore Verbinski once again in the director's chair and Johnny Depp, who earned an Oscar nomination the first time around, returning to play the central character. Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and superproducer Jerry Bruckheimer are also back giving audiences another swashbuckling adventure on the high seas. In the latest saga, Sparrow owes a blood debt to the great pirate Davy Jones and must find a mysterious treasure chest, or else be doomed to eternal damnation.

Three years ago, the studio hit theaters with a big-budget action film based on a Disneyland ride which seemed to be one of the riskiest pics of the summer. "Pirates" bowed on a Wednesday and was an instant hit with audiences grossing $46.6M over its first weekend and $70.6M over its five-day launch. But beyond that, "Pirates" had legs and spent eleven weeks in the top ten before ending its run with $305.4M making it the second biggest blockbuster of the summer. Depp provided a breath of fresh air during an endless summer of action sequels with recycled characters and plots. Worldwide, "Pirates" sailed away with $654M worth of loot giving the studio a craving for more gold. Two sequels were greenlit with the concluding chapter set to open over Memorial Day weekend 2007.

Disney has staked out the same weekend after Independence Day for "Dead Man's Chest." This time around, with a bigger upfront audience and a Friday bow which will compress business into a standard Friday-to-Sunday period, the pirate adventure has a chance of scoring one of the largest opening weekends in box office history. Five films have generated three-day bows north of $100M. The first, 2002's "Spider-Man," still holds the record with $114.8M from 3,615 theaters. Since then, some of Hollywood's biggest sequels have come within striking distance of the webslinger, but none has truly been able to match it. "Shrek 2" opened to $108M after a Wednesday bow, "Star Wars Episode III" debuted to $108.4M after a Thursday start, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" launched to $102.3M, and "X-Men: The Last Stand" opened to $102.8M over the three-day portion of its Memorial Day weekend holiday opening.

The second "Pirates" saga has an excellent chance of reaching nine digits in its first three days and even Spidey himself has to be a little nervous about losing his trophy. Disney's marketing efforts have been very strong, but not over the top. As Paramount found out with its third Ethan Hunt film, moviegoers can get turned off by an overmarketed movie. "Pirates" actors have been doing the talk show and magazine cover rounds, but the studio has made sure that the hype doesn't get so big that it backfires.

Appeal for the new Captain Jack film is broad as moviegoers of all ages will be lining up. And more importantly, "Pirates" has some of the strongest appeal to women of any of the action franchises around. Men are an easy sell for the genre, but with Johnny and Orlando front and center, the female turnout will be key in getting those grosses up to levels rarely seen. The first film saw its audience grow significantly during its theatrical run and later on video so this time around, there could be twice as many people showing up on opening weekend.

Cutting into "Dead Man"'s potential, however, could be the long running time -- a common problem with so many of this summer's films. At two-and-a-half hours long, the film will test the patience of some and have one less showing per auditorium when compared to the standard two-hour films. Of course, the last "Harry Potter" and "Star Wars" films had similar lengths and still soared past the $100M mark on opening weekend. And even though they should suffer large drops, "Superman Returns" and "The Devil Wears Prada" will be in their sophomore frames and still absorb a solid amount of business.

But with no other films opening, the entertainment media has been focusing solely on "Pirates" this week so at least there won't be fellow freshman to deal with. Reviews have been mixed, and as with most sequels, they have not been as glowing as they were the first time around. That should mean little on the debut frame though. Excitement is sky high and Disney has a solid product on its hands. With clear sailing ahead of it, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" might capture around $104M worth of box office loot this weekend.

Since no other studio dared to challenge Disney this weekend with any wide releases, Warner Independent Pictures picked Friday for its limited bow of the futuristic crime drama "A Scanner Darkly." Directed by Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "Waking Life"), the R-rated film stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson in a story about an undercover cop hooked on a popular narcotic who is out to bring down drug dealers. "Scanner" is based on the popular novel and features live-action material animated into a stylized new look. The film debuts in 17 theaters this weekend before expanding to more markets later this month.

And what of the son of Krypton? Analysts will be watching the second weekend numbers closely for "Superman Returns" to find its true trajectory over the long run. Will it hold up like "Batman Begins," crash and burn like "The Hulk," or fall somewhere in between? Its opening weekend delivered sales that were lower than expectations, but Warner Bros. insists that those paying to see the pic are liking it. Sophomore drops for recent Independence Day weekend launches include 53% for "War of the Worlds" last year and 49% for 2004's "Spider-Man 2." The Man of Steel is coming off of a similar type of midweek debut, however it faces the mammoth "Pirates" sequel which will play to much of the same summer action audience. With a little luck, "Superman Returns" might keep its drop-off rate to 50% which would give the Bryan Singer-directed pic about $26M for the frame. That should boost the 12-day cume to $146M.

Meryl Streep was rolling in cash last weekend with the opening of her new comedy "The Devil Wears Prada" which was a potent number two in the holiday race. A sizable decline is in order since Hurricane Johnny will hit but also because the film's audience of readers of the popular book probably made it out already. A fall of 45% would give "Prada" around $15M for the session and a stellar ten-day tally of $62M.

The usual erosion should hit "Click" which has been playing out like the usual Adam Sandler comedy. Look for another 50% fall to roughly $10M for a cume to date of $101M. The animated hit "Cars" has enjoyed some of the best legs of any summer film so far, but older kids will certainly start walking the plank for Disney's other big summer blockbuster this weekend. Pixar's latest flick could drop by 40% to around $9M which would boost the total to $202M making it the third film of the year to break the $200M mark. The May releases "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "The Da Vinci Code" were the first.

LAST YEAR: Super hero power ruled the weekend as Fox's "Fantastic Four" opened atop the charts with a potent $56.1M launching another successful Marvel film franchise. Reed Richards and pals went on to gross $154.7M domestically and $330M worldwide and will hit theaters again next summer in the sequel. Tom Cruise's alien invasion pic "War of the Worlds" dropped to second place with $30.5M in its sophomore session losing 53% of its business. Another comic book flick, "Batman Begins," placed third in its fourth outing with $10M. Debuting close behind in fourth was the Jennifer Connelly horror entry "Dark Water" with $9.9M on its way to $25.5M for Buena Vista. "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" rounded out the top five with $7.9M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya,