Now, if we could only get the dragon into the hot tub…

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We’re getting off to a late start on this week’s box office preview, but it’s not like there’s a huge amount of suspense over what movie will rule the box office this early Spring weekend. Still, it’s not all skittles and beer out there.

America’s theater owners have decided to do a solid for the home entertainment business by trying to take advantage of the current 3-D mania by raising already inflated ticket prices during a still very rough economy/”jobless recovery.” I’m betting that whatever gains the owners see from this will be short term — especially as 3-D films become common as dirt with 3-D retrofits lowering the perception of quality — but that’s a rant for another day. However, one more thing, can someone explain to me how all the major chains increasing their prices over the same weekend doesn’t sound suspiciously like collusion, and if I’m right, how that can be legal?

In any case, the movie which will be generating a rude surprise at the box office for families nationwide is Paramount/Dreamworks digitally animated family fantasy-comedy, “How to Train Your Dragon.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Greg Kilday is reporting that interest is increasing and as much as $40 million seems possible. Especially considering those extra inflated ticket prices and we know that once the family is at the box office, it’s far too late to turn back, I wouldn’t it expect it to go higher. Moreover, it sounds like people will be getting a dandy movie for their (too much) money. The reviews for this one are darn near Pixar-esque — in other words hugely positive — at least in terms of the Rotten Tomatoes numbers and when that many critics like a mass audience film, believe it not, most people will like it too.

With all due huge respect to Roger Ebert, who is predicting the film will come in at #2 based on his site traffic  (he gave it only the mildest possible positive review and unlike others was not wowed by its 3-D either, it appears), this seems like the closest thing there is to surefire hit. Moreover, my spies in the family world tell me child interest has been high for weeks.

Hot Tub Time Machine
Still, I wouldn’t bet against a healthy showing for the film Mr. Ebert expects to be top new release this week, “Hot Tub Time Machine.” My spies in the middle-aged-overgrown-child-world (primarily: me, myself, I) tell me that interest in this raunchy but (I’m hoping) clever farce with a strong comedy cast and a instantly get-able premise has also been high for some time.

On the other hand, while some may be whispering of a coup along the lines of “The Hangover, my gut tells me it’s simply not the same kind of film and I don’t see this having the same kind of wide appeal. For all its guy-humor, “The Hangover” was a surprisingly sweet-tempered and almost low-key film by modern comedy standards, “Hot Tub Time Machine” seems to be more in the “Harold & Kumar” range of low-comedy that works for (relatively) high IQs. Anyhow, the film benefits from probably better than average reviews for this kind of comedy (62% “Fresh”).  Kilday is talking in the high teens. I suspect it’ll do well and perhaps more than that, but not shockingly so.

In any case, it generated the best RT pull quote I’ve seen in awhile, courtesy of A.O. Scott, who finds an undercurrent of melancholy amidst the low comedy:

It’s fun, it’s sad, and it’s kind of sad that it’s so much fun.

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“Alice” gets its three-peat, but it’s an upset at #2 for a “Wimpy Kid”

If anyone out there still doubts that family films are the surest path to box office glory, this weekend should be a stark reminder of that fact. The ongoing 3-D premium ticket price-boosted power of “Alice in Wonderland” once again nailed the #1 spot for Disney, and a very healthy estimate of $34.5 million in its third week.

That’s not all. Against some theoretically stiff, star-driven competition, our #2 film turns out to be a lowish budget, live-action version of a series of young adult comic books with no spectacular effects and no superstars — though young Chloe Moretz of “Kick-Ass” might be one fairly shortly. “Diary of Wimpy Kid” nailed an estimated $21.8 million for Fox on the strength of what appears to be a lot of kid-friendly low comedy.

It was perhaps a slightly humiliating result for the film that was supposed to be the #2 film this weekend. As we discussed last time, “The Bounty Hunter” benefits from two big stars and a strong ad campaign. Still, it’s terrible reviews appear to have been an indication of something other than a bunch of effete, “irrelevant” snobs who don’t know how to have fun or something. It’s just possible that “regular people” aren’t enjoying it much more than critics did.

Nevertheless, the action-oriented rom-com did hit the low end of expectations with an estimated $21 million. That’s close enough that it’s not impossible that the “actuals” could actually change the rankings when they come out. My hunch, however, is that, if they’re different, they’ll be different in the disfavor of “Bounty Hunter.” In any case, they can’t undo the reality that “Wimpy Kid” has already made an amount exceeding its budget ($15 million according to Box Office Mojo; $19 million according to Nikki Finke). At $40 million, “The Bounty Hunter” is not an expensive movie by Hollywood standards, but it took the very expensive marketing equivalent of carpet bombing to not beat the arguably under-promoted family film for the #3 spot.

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker face the abyssStill, if “The Bounty Hunter” was stung, the oddly topical “Repo Men” got its internal organs ripped out with an extremely poor fourth place estimate of about $6.15 million.  It’s yet another fiscal setback for Universal despite an instantly understandable premise and lots of advertising and marketing. My hunch here is that the action audience is not as hungry for straight-up gore as the horror audience. Also, its marketing seems muddled in terms of whether it was trying to sell it as a straight-up science fiction action film despite an inherently satirical premise. “Repo Men” seems to have pleased fairly few in the process but, by the numbers, its reviews were more than twice as good as for “The Bounty Hunter” for what that’s worth.

This week’s box office winner in terms of per-screen averages is the comedy-drama from Noah Baumbach, “Greenberg.” Though only playing on three screens, the film managed a terrific $120,000 for Focus Features. It benefits from an unusually big star for a limited release in Ben Stiller, not to mention sexy/likable possible-superstar-to-be Greta Gerwig in the female lead, and a writer-director who is a known quantity to the indie-audience thanks to his success with “The Squid and the Whale” and his association with Wes Anderson. Considering the plugged-in nature of the audience in New York and Los Angeles that tends to goes to indie films on opening weekends, it’s also tempting to wonder if the controversy, which I’ve been personally guilty of promoting, around critic Armond White’s beyond-over-the-top personal hatred for Noah Baumbach and, more to the point, for Baumbach’s ex-film critic mother, might have boosted interest just a touch. We’ll see what happens when “Greenberg” goes wider next week.

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