April 29, 2009 / 11:54 PM / in 8 years

"Wolverine" set to dominate pack at box office

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It’s a little early to start lathering on the Coppertone with even Memorial Day still a month away, but Hollywood’s summertime fun officially begins at midnight Thursday.

The industry kicks off its most lucrative box office season with Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” A spin-off of the studio’s successful “X-Men” film franchise, the Hugh Jackman vehicle looks likely to open with at least $80 million domestically -- though Fox executives insist even a $70 million bow would be acceptable on the $150 million picture.

With many of Thursday night’s roughly 1,500 midnight performances for “Wolverine” selling out, Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder forecast a “wonderful weekend.”

This time last year, Marvel/Paramount’s “Iron Man” opened to a surprisingly strong $102.1 million. The Robert Downey Jr. superhero picture went on to earn $318.4 million domestically.

The “Wolverine” opening will also be compared with the three “X-Men” pictures, each of which outpaced its predecessor at home and abroad throughout each theatrical run:

-- “X-Men” bowed in July 2000 with $54.5 million domestically and grossed $157.3 million in the U.S. and Canada, part of a $296.3 million worldwide tally.

-- “X2: X-Men United” debuted in May 2003 with $85.6 million while ringing up $214.9 million overall domestically and $407.7 million on a worldwide basis.

-- “X-Men: The Last Stand” bowed with $122.9 million in May 2006, and grossed $234.4 million domestically and $459.4 million worldwide.

Directed by Gavin Hood -- who shot the Oscar-winning South African picture “Tsotsi” -- “Wolverine” has been tracking best in pre-release surveys with male youngsters. Yet its market profile is a bit more diffuse than a typical fanboy picture and suggests an opening like that of “Iron Man,” were it not for problems from illegal downloading of an early pirated version of the film.

“We’re not sure what the illegal downloads mean to the box office,” Snyder said.

In addition to its piracy woes, “Wolverine” may be hampered by buzz on fan sites perhaps best characterized as neutral to negative. But is should surely help that the domestic box office market has been especially robust of late, with the industry notching five straight year-over-year upticks in recent weekends.

“Wolverine” also bows this week in 101 foreign territories in one of the studio’s more ambitious recent day-and-date campaigns.

Two other wide openers are also set for North American release this weekend, both representing counterprogramming plays. Despite the long shadow “Wolverine” will cast over the marketplace, distributors discovered several years ago that the early start to summer breaks on many college campuses can lend an early-season heft to all sorts of younger-skewing pictures.

With that in mind, Warner Bros.’ romantic comedy “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” will shrug off indifferent reviews and ring up teen millions or more -- mostly from young girls and some date-night biz -- while Lionsgate’s 3-D animated feature “Battle for Terra” should see enough dads dragged to the multiplexes by young sons to fetch at least $5 million-$7 million.

Editing by Dean Gooodman at Reuters

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