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Fourth 'Pirates' film could be first $100-million-plus opening of the year

April 29, 2011 |  8:06 am

Pirates of the Caribbean Stranger Tides
The early polling is in for Walt Disney Studios' fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, and it looks like it could be bigger than a kraken.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is by far the most popular title to hit moviegoers' radar in 2011, according to pre-release surveys used by studios to gauge consumer interst in upcoming releases. Several studio executives not authorized to speak on the record because the data is confidential said the big-budget event film could be the first to open to more than $100 million this year.

The biggest debut this year was $39.2 million for the animated comedy "Rio," though this weekend, "Fast Five" is expected to surpass that figure.

Although it launches in three weeks, "Stranger Tides" is already generating more consumer interest than next week's pricy tentpole "Thor" and roughly as much as this week's "Fast Five." Movies generally attract more consumer attention the closer they get to their release dates.

Notably, the new "Pirates" sequel is equally popular among men and women of all ages. When spending hundreds of millions to produce a movie, studios want it to appeal to the broadest possible audience, though many fail to do so.

The fourth installment in the “Pirates” franchise features a new story focused on the exploits of actor Johnny Depp’s flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow.  Former co-stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are gone in this installment, in which Jack pairs with a con artist played by Penelope Cruz in a search of the fountain of youth.

Even though the three previous “Pirates” films have been blockbusters, bringing in a total worldwide box office of $2.7 billion, producer Jerry Bruckheimer was under pressure to deliver this latest movie on a tighter budget. The spending was still large — somewhere north of $200 million — but about a third less than 2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." As a result, there were fewer shooting days and visual effects shots, and some personnel changes — including bringing in a new director, Rob Marshall, best known for his filmed stage musicals “Nine” and “Chicago.”

Although "At World's End" grossed $961 million worldwide, that was down 10% from its 2006 predecessor and reviews were weak, with many critics complaining about a virtually incomprehensible plot. As a result, Disney may have to overcome some ill will in drawing fans back for the new "Pirates" movie.

Another obstacle: 2011 has been a bad year at the box office, with receipts down 18% and many films performing worse than their tracking had indicated. So while "Pirates" looks like it could be huge, there's no guarantee of how massive its booty will be.

A Disney spokesman declined to comment.

— Ben Fritz and Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." Credit: Peter  Mountain / Disney.