March 18, 2011 / 5:45 PM / 6 years ago

A trio of new entries enter crowded box office field

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The weekend box office could see a close battle between three new titles -- Relativity Media's Bradley Cooper starrer "Limitless," Lionsgate's Matthew McConaughey legal thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer" and Universal's raunchy alien comedy "Paul."

All are expected to open in the low to mid teens, give or take.

If that holds true, Sony's holdover "Battle: Los Angeles" has a fighting chance of staying at the top of the chart. "Battle: L.A.," opening to $35.6 million last weekend, had earned $44 million through Wednesday.

Paramount's "Rango," coming in No. 2 last weekend, also is expected to remain a popular choice. The quirky toon's total gross through Wednesday was $75.2 million.

Disney's ill-fated toon "Mars Needs Moms" enters its second frame after opening to just $6.9 million.

"Limitless" could have an edge over the competition, since tracking shows it appealing to the broadest audience. Directed by Neil Burger, the film also stars Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro.

In the movie, Cooper stars as a down-and-out man whose life is transformed when he takes a drug that optimizes untapped parts of his brain.

"Limitless," costing $27 million to make, was co-produced by Relativity and Virgin Produced. (It's the debut title from Richard Branson's company.)

Relativity said it is already in good shape with "Limitless," since much of the film's budget was financed by foreign presales along with an upfront payment from Netflix for home entertainment rights.

If "Limitless" does well, it will mark a key moment for Relativity's new distribution and marketing division. The company's first few releases have struggled at the box office.

"Limitless" has an advantage in being rated PG-13. Both "Lincoln Lawyer" and "Paul" are rated R.

Lionsgate made "Lincoln Lawyer" in partnership with Lakeshore Entertainment. The mini-major took an equity stake in the film, while Lakeshore paid for marketing and helped coordinate foreign presales.

"Lincoln Lawyer" -- based on Michael Connelly's novel -- is showing the most interest among women over the age of 25, followed by older males. The film has a strong cast, including Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy and Josh Lucas.

Lionsgate said a big opening for "Lincoln Lawyer" isn't important, since adult-skewing titles tend to build over time.

To promote the film as it opens, Lionsgate teamed with Groupon to offer discounted tickets for this weekend. It's the first time a Hollywood studio has teamed with Groupon, although there have been several movie promotions offered by LivingSocial.

Lionsgate said the promotion serves the same purpose as a sneak preview or promotional screening. It may take a bite of box office grosses, but it encourages word-of-mouth and builds awareness.

One Groupon promotion offered tickets for $6; another, for $1. Offers were only available for 48 hours. Insiders say Lionsgate is subsidizing the discounted sales, so box office revenue will reflect full price.

Universal's "Paul," directed by "Superbad's" Greg Mottola, was produced by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner's Working Title.

The raunchy comedy has already grossed $25.8 million overseas, including $21.3 million in the U.K., where Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are popular stars.

In the U.S., "Paul" is expected to play mostly to fanboys -- the story line is about two geeks who stumble upon a fun-loving, crude extra-terrestrial on their way to Comic-Con. Seth Rogen voices the role of the alien.

"Paul" cost $40 million to produce, so Universal doesn't need the comedy to do huge numbers. Also, "Paul" still hasn't opened in many foreign territories.

There are several high-profile openings this weekend on the specialty side, including Roadside Attractions' "The Music Never Stopped." The drama was directed by Jim Kohlberg.

Fox Searchlight opens Tom McCarthy's "Win Win" in five theaters, while Sony Pictures Classics debuts "Winter in Wartime" in three. IFC opens Cracks in six locations.

Editing by Zorianna Kit

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