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Movie projector: Holiday season kicks off with Disney's pricey 'Christmas Carol'

November 5, 2009 |  2:48 pm

XmasCarol We just got past Halloween. Thanksgiving is still three weeks away. You know what that means. Christmas baby!

Friday, Walt Disney Studios opens "A Christmas Carol," its nearly $200-million version of the classic holiday tale starring Jim Carrey, with the majority of theaters playing it in on digital 3-D screens that have higher ticket prices. Executives who follow pre-release polling say the movie will likely sell between $40 million and $45 million worth of tickets on its opening weekend. That's a decent start given the movie's huge budget and an aggressive marketing campaign by Disney.

A long life in theaters and a strong performance overseas will be key to the picture's ultimate success. "A Christmas Carol" debuts simultaneously this weekend in Australia, Britain, German-speaking Europe, Mexico, Brazil and Scandinavia. It will open in other countries by the end of November.

Family pictures often hold well at the box office and draw bigger international audiences. "The Polar Express," "Christmas Carol" director Robert Zemeckis' similar motion-capture holiday movie from 2004, opened to $30.6 million over its first five days and went on to gross $162.8 million (not including subsequent re-releases). It collected $124 million overseas, but Disney likely has even higher hopes for "A Christmas Carol." Several family movies this year, such as "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" and Disney's own "Up," have done huge business outside the U.S.

"A Christmas Carol" kicks off a holiday season with a number of big movies that could help boost what has already been a healthy year at domestic box office. On Nov. 13, Sony Pictures opens its big-budget disaster movie, "2012," which is tracking for a big $60-million-plus opening, followed by Summit's highly anticipated "Twilight" sequel.

Later in November and December come a number of pricey movies with big box-office potential, including Disney's animated feature "The Princess and the Frog," Paramount's Peter Jackson-directed drama "The Lovely Bones," Sony's romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans," Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel, Warner Bros.' "Sherlock Holmes" and the costliest picture of the year, Fox's James Cameron film "Avatar."

Studios have traditionally waited until closer to Thanksgiving to start opening the big holiday movies that they hope will play well until the new year. Last year, however, the schedule moved up as DreamWorks Animation debuted "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" on the first weekend of November to a very strong $63.1 million.

Three other movies with relatively modest budgets open this weekend. Given their costs, a debut in the teens would be good for any of them, though it's unlikely all will get there.

Overture Films is launching "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which is tracking best of the three. The independent studio paid a little under $5 million for domestic distribution rights to the political comedy starring George Clooney, which was co-financed by BBC Films and Winchester Capital Management at a cost of a little under $25 million.

Box The Richard Kelly-directed thriller "The Box," which Warner Bros. is distributing on behalf of co-financiers Media Rights Capital and Radar Pictures, is tracking best with adults, particularly women, but it may have the toughest time breaking past $10 million. The movie cost $25 million to produce.

Universal is releasing the low-budget horror flick "The Fourth Kind" for financier Gold Circle Films. It will likely compete with "The Box" to be third among the weekend's new pictures.

In limited release, Lionsgate launches its dark and strongly reviewed festival favorite "Precious" at 18 theaters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta. As John Horn reported in today's Times, the studio is targeting a mix of upscale theaters and ones that draw heavily African American crowds.

More interesting than many of the new films, however, may be the second weekend performance of "This Is It." Sony Pictures' Michael Jackson movie has seen healthy weekday returns after a surprisingly strong Sunday, indicating it may decline modestly after its decent domestic opening and solid start overseas. Through Wednesday, the movie has sold $41.6 million worth of tickets domestically and $94.7 million in international markets.

-- Ben Fritz

Upper photo: "A Christmas Carol." Credit: ImageMovers.

Lower photo: Frank Langella and Cameron Diaz in "The Box." Credit: Dale Robinette / Warner Bros.

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