December 24, 2008 / 5:43 AM / 9 years ago

Sandler, Aniston compete at Christmas box office

<p>Cast member Jennifer Aniston attends the premiere of the movie "Marley &amp; Me" at the Mann Village theatre in Westwood, California, December 11, 2008. The movie opens in the U.S. on December 25. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It may be the season of peace on Earth, but at the box office this holiday weekend it will be all-out war among five new wide releases opening on Christmas Day.

Family audiences are expected to flock to the Adam Sandlercomedy/fantasy “Bedtime Stories” and the canine hijinks of “Marley & Me,” starring Jennifer Aniston, which will likely take the top two spots.

Adults can pick between star-crossed lovers Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and the military assassins led by Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie,” while genre fans can head off to the graphic novel adaptation “The Spirit.”

Upping the competitive ante, Miramax Films is expanding its awards contender “Doubt” nationally. And last weekend’s champ “Yes Man,” along with “Seven Pounds,” both of which were dinged by severe weather across the country, could demonstrate stronger-than-average holds as audiences shovel out.

“It bodes well for all of us because there are a lot of films, and it should be fun for the audience because there are so many choices,” said Disney distribution president Chuck Viane, who is handling “Bedtime Stories.”

The holiday calendar is certainly cooperating: With Christmas on Thursday, once presents are unwrapped and family gatherings start to wind down, moviegoers are expected to start showing up at the multiplex for evening performances; Friday should support strong Saturday-type numbers; and Saturday and Sunday should continue the momentum, the weather gods permitting.

“You have a slightly better calendar when Christmas is on a Wednesday, but that’s being picky,” said Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder, whose studio enters the fray with “Marley & Me.” “Christmas on a Thursday is still pretty ideal.”

Disney’s “Bedtime Stories” is positioned to attract families en masse. Starring Sandler as an uncle who entertains his niece and nephew with fantastic stories that start to come true all around him, the PG-rated film won’t necessarily appeal to his usual guy fans.

But its mix of comedy, fantasy and special effects could attract the same wide demographic that made a hit of the Ben Stiller-starrer “Night at the Museum” two Christmases ago. That movie, which went on to gross an impressive $251 million domestically, enjoyed a three-day opening of $30 million. “Stories” could similarly break into $30 million-plus territory during the four-day weekend, although it does face a more competitive field than “Museum” encountered.

The showdown between “Stories” and “Marley” is expected to be close. With particular interest among women, “Marley” should emerge with a strong second-place showing and a four-day take ranging from the mid-$20 million into the $30 million range. Based on the best-selling memoir by John Grogan, the PG-rated movie stars Aniston and Owen Wilson as a married couple who find their hands full with a rambunctious yellow lab.

Making a bid for adult audiences, the PG-13-rated “Benjamin Button” rides into the Christmas Day fray with five Golden Globe nominations. Pitt and Blanchett star in the luxe version of an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale. The film, making a strong play for older women in hopes of then broadening out to other quadrants, will be hampered a bit by its 2 hour and 45 minute running time, but it should stake out mid-$20 million turf.

MGM/UA’s “Valkyrie” should be the choice of a lot of male moviegoers, appealing to thriller fans and History Channel buffs alike with its account of a failed conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. The PG-13 feature appears headed to a final count in the high-teen millions, possibly hitting the $20 million mark at the high end.

Filling out the list of newcomers is Lionsgate’s “The Spirit,” director Frank Miller’s PG-13 adaptation of Will Eisner’s graphic novel about a cop (Gabriel Macht) who turns into a masked crime fighter. With a cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes, the film should gross somewhere in the teen-millions, which would leave it in the middle of the pack depending on the staying power of holdovers like “Yes Man,” “Seven Pounds” and “The Tale of Despereaux.”

Among specialty films, the competition will be just as heated. “Doubt,” with its high-profile cast headed by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in an ecclesiastical face-off, is making its first foray into wide release on Christmas Day after two weekends in limited release.

Christmas will also see the exclusive openings of Sony Pictures Classics’ critically lauded animated documentary “Waltz With Bashir” and Overture Films’ adult romance “Last Chance Harvey,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. On Friday, Paramount Vantage will raise the curtain on its marital drama “Revolutionary Road,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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