LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Like colliding asteroids, a major sci-fi release and a megahit action fantasy will clash at the box office this weekend.
Among the imponderables that the matchup poses for industry forecasters:
* Can a late surge in must-see interest lift Paramount's sci-fi prequel "Star Trek" to an opening on the order of last weekend's $85.1 million debut for Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine?"
* How badly will the "Trek" bow hurt "Wolverine" in its sophomore session?
Many industryites suggest that "Trek" will fall at least a bit short of matching the domestic debut of "Wolverine" because it has a more narrowly drawn fan base. Yet they note that "Trek" seems to be gaining market momentum, with a definite uptick in awareness and interest among prospective patrons amid positive early reviews.
Most of the more than 3,800 theaters playing "Trek" this weekend have scheduled "previews" for as early as 7 p.m. Thursday, which should pad the opening gross substantially. Pacific Theatres' ArcLight Hollywood programed a "members only" performance for 5 p.m. Thursday, with that coin and other early grosses to be recorded as Friday box office.
"Trek" playdates include 138 giant-screen venues sure to generate outsize grosses in one of Imax's biggest releases of a commercial film. The Imax playdates are scheduled for two weeks only.
"This is right in our wheelhouse," Imax Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster said. "It's a demographic that loves Imax -- the crowd -- and there's also a cool factor to it. Of course, the fans will want to dress up for it, and we can help event-ize all of that."
"Wolverine," which continues to play in more than 4,000 theaters, rang up almost $5 million from more than 1,500 midnight Thursday performances a week ago. The Hugh Jackman-starring feature is widely expected to fall more than 60 percent from its opening tally, so the real question is, simply, how much more?
"Word-of-mouth and female support should carry us, even with a big picture like 'Star Trek' coming into the marketplace," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "We should be able to continue our positive run and gross well without disappearing."
Also opening this weekend is Summit Entertainment's R-rated action picture "Next Day Air."
Directed by hip-hop video director Benny Boom, the film stars musician/actor Mos Def and Donald Faison of ABC's "Scrubs." Prospects for the modestly budgeted movie appear limited to single-digit millions.
The J.J. Abrams-helmed "Trek" -- which casts young actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Capt. James Kirk and Spock, respectively -- was produced for a reported $140 million, including splashy visual effects from George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic.
Prerelease interest is strongest among males 25 and older, though there has been a late-breaking surge of interest among younger males. Females appear notably less enamored with "Trek" than they have been with Jackman and "Wolverine."
Meanwhile, there's one more area of debate in advance of the "Trek" bow: How big must it open to be considered a successful launch? Paramount executives claim that they will be happy with anything north of $50 million, as the aim with the prequel is to rejuvenate the franchise and not necessarily to register huge first-frame grosses.
"The company's position is that it's just not in the cards," Paramount senior vice president distribution Don Harris said of the prospect of matching the "Wolverine" bow. "But with the Thursday night performances, there should be a good chance of getting excellent word-of-mouth going."
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters