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‘Ghost Rider’ sequel is expected to scorch competition

By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Nicolas Cage plays with fire in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” but it’s the competition at the box office that is likely to get burned this weekend.

The 3-D sequel, featuring Cage as a demonic motorcycle-riding superhero, is expected to be the No. 1 film over Presidents Day weekend. According to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys, the movie will debut with around $30 million in sales from Friday through Monday.

The tear-jerker “The Vow” and the action film “Safe House,” which each opened to more than $40 million last weekend, probably will fight for the runner-up position with around $20 million in sales.

Two new films, meanwhile, are projected to lag behind. The romantic comedy-action flick “This Means War,” starring Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, is expected to bring in a so-so $15 million over the four-day holiday weekend. And “The Secret World of Arrietty,” an animated film first released in Japan in 2010 and now dubbed with the voices of American actors, is likely to start off with about $5 million.

The original “Ghost Rider” opened on the same weekend in 2007 and debuted with $45.4 million, ultimately raking in $115.8 domestically and about that much overseas as well. The film was one of the biggest successes in recent years for Cage, who has appeared in an astounding 14 films since the release of “Ghost Rider.” Of those, most were action movies, the highest-grossing one being the sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which took in about $350 million worldwide in 2007.

Though the outdoor advertisements for the 48-year-old actor’s latest project spotlight the recognizable Ghost Rider character, Cage’s face or name are not prominently featured. The movie was not screened in advance for critics, indicating that Sony Pictures may be nervous about its public reception.

The picture was funded by Sony, along with production and financing company Hyde Park Entertainment, for about $80 million, said one person close to the project who was not authorized to speak about it publicly. Hyde Park controls international distribution rights. The sequel was made for about $30 million less than the original, and also features new directors in Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who are well-known to fanboys for their work on the two “Crank” action movies.

“This Means War” was initially slated to open nationwide on Valentine’s Day, but last week 20th Century Fox pushed back the wide release date by three days. In an effort to spread positive word of mouth in advance of the film’s debut, Fox previewed the picture in about 2,500 theaters on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day.

Fox and co-financier Dune Entertainment spent about $65 million to produce the movie, about two CIA agents vying for the affections of the same woman. The film is directed by McG, best known for his work on action films such as “Terminator: Salvation.” It has been in development at Fox for more than a decade, and in recent years attracted the interest of such stars as Bradley Cooper and Sam Worthington.

The film, which has so far received poor critical reviews, is debuting in 17 foreign markets this weekend, including Australia and Russia.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” was co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, the filmmaker behind “Ponyo” and “Spirited Away.” Miyazaki enjoys a strong relationship with Pixar Animation Studio’s creative guru John Lasseter, who also oversees Disney Animation.

It was Lasseter who helped bring “Arrietty” to the U.S. after the animated film found success overseas in 2010. That year, it became the top-grossing picture in Japan and collected a total of $126 million abroad. Now the characters in the movie have been updated with the voices of English-speaking actors, including Saoirse Ronan as the lead character, Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett.

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