LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Hancock," the new Will Smith action movie opening ahead of the July Fourth holiday, seems sure to extend Hollywood's latest hot streak, keeping the U.S. box office on pace to exceed last year's record summer.
Starring Smith as a chronically hung-over, often-reckless superhero, "Hancock" is expected to give Sony Pictures its first No. 1 release of the lucrative season and gross $70 million to $80 million in its opening weekend.
Smith's last movie, dystopian thriller "I Am Legend," raked in a whopping $77.2 million its first weekend in mid-December last year, a career best for the 39-year-old star.
Counting ticket sales from Tuesday evening previews slated for most of the 3,965 theaters showing the film this weekend, the movie's North American tally through Sunday is virtually certain to surpass $100 million, analysts predicted.
Despite mixed early reviews, the film got off to a robust start with Sony reporting nearly $7 million collected from advance screenings Tuesday night.
That's about twice the $3.5 million rung up by Marvel blockbuster "Iron Man" from Thursday previews in 2,000-plus theaters in May, according to distributor Paramount Pictures. "Iron Man" has gone on to gross more than $300 million domestically.
"This is a good sign," Sony executive Rory Bruer said of the promising early returns. "This is where you want to be."
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking service Media By Numbers, said weekend business could suffer from Friday falling on July 4, a day many families celebrate by going to cook-outs and fireworks shows rather than theaters.
By comparison, action film "Transformers" opened last year on Tuesday, July 3, and grossed $70.5 million in the subsequent Friday-through-Sunday period. "Transformers" also drew bigger preview business, $8.8 million from advance screenings.
Still, Dergarabedian predicted that "Hancock" would pack enough punch -- combined with popular film holdovers like last weekend's top two releases, "WALL-E" and "Wanted" -- to continue a recent box office winning streak.
From the start of the 18-week summer movie season in May through the midway point last Sunday, North American ticket sales rose nearly 6 percent compared with 2007, and attendance was up almost 3 percent, according to Media By Numbers.
Moreover, U.S.-Canadian box office receipts have remained well above year-ago levels for five weeks straight -- running about 20 percent ahead on average -- in a trend that Dergarabedian said could extend for a sixth week.
At this pace, he said, Hollywood could be on track to top the record $4.18 billion box office for all of last summer.
Dergarabedian said that prospect was "unthinkable" six to eight weeks ago, when the movie industry was still struggling to reverse a commercial slump. The summer season can account for as much as 40 percent of annual domestic ticket sales.
One key source of box office strength this summer, according to Daily Variety, has been an abundance of mid-range films that have exceeded expectations, such as eco-thriller "The Happening" and horror movie "The Strangers."
While the top 10 films so far this season have grossed nearly $150 million on average, about even with last summer, the average grossed by films ranking 11th through 20th is $36.7 million, up sharply from the $22 million averaged by comparable movies last summer, Variety said.
According to Variety's analysis, mid-level films have benefited this summer from a release schedule that has squeezed fewer wide releases into each weekend, enabling films farther down the marquee a chance to find their audience and thrive.
Dergarabedian agreed but cited several other factors, including rising gasoline prices and economic woes in general that have curtailed vacation plans and sent many consumers in search of escapism and relatively cheap entertainment options.
Several big franchises are still to come later this summer, including Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman