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‘Three Stooges’ is only rival for ‘Hunger Games’ at box office

By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — There’s only one rival that may be able to trip up the seemingly unstoppable “The Hunger Games” at the box office this weekend: a trio of out-of-shape goofballs. Although the fantasy epic starring Jennifer Lawrence looks primed to claim the No. 1 spot for the fourth consecutive weekend, it may face some competition from a new spin on “The Three Stooges.”

After 21 days in release, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel has already grossed more than $300 million domestically and could take in $18 million to $20 million more this weekend, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys.

“The Three Stooges” probably is headed for a debut of $15 million to $18 million, giving the PG-rated comedy a healthy shot at the top position.

Either way, it should be a good weekend for Lionsgate. In addition to “The Hunger Games,” the independent studio is also releasing the Joss Whedon-produced horror flick “Cabin in the Woods,” which probably will start off with about $15 million. That would give Lionsgate two of the weekend’s top three films — a rare feat for the film company.

Meanwhile, the third new film hitting theaters this weekend, the sci-fi action film “Lockout,” is expected to open with only a soft sum of less than $10 million.

Founded as a vaudeville act in 1925, “The Three Stooges” — Moe, Larry and Curly — went on to become an American comedy staple, showing up in more than 200 short and feature films.

The most recent incarnation is the brainchild of brother directing team Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who have been interested in making a new version of the Stooges for more than a decade. During that time, the film went through a number of casting changes, with Jim Carrey and Sean Penn at one point attached to star. The filmmakers eventually settled upon a lesser-known triumvirate of actors, including Sean Hayes from TV’s “Will & Grace.”

The Farrelly brothers found the most success at the U.S. box office in the early 1990s, when their bawdy comedy “Dumb & Dumber” collected a strong $127 million. In recent years, however, their pictures have failed to resonate with domestic crowds. In the last decade, the brothers have made four films, including “Hall Pass” and “Fever Pitch,” but none has exceeded $45 million at the multiplex.

This weekend, “The Three Stooges” is expected to resonate mostly with male audiences — in fact, a number of advertisements for the film even suggest men go see the movie this weekend while their wives and girlfriends head to the spa. The movie has not earned fantastic reviews: On Thursday morning, it had notched a 44 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Critics, however, love “Cabin in the Woods,” an impressive accomplishment for a horror film because movies from that genre typically earn terrible reviews. The film, which follows five friends vacationing in an eerie cabin, was originally an MGM project. (So was “The Three Stooges.” Fox bought the rights to make the $37 million production from MGM, where the film was previously in development.) “Cabin” was shot years ago and initially slated for a 2009 release but taken off the calendar in the hope of converting the picture to 3-D the following year. Then MGM entered bankruptcy, and Lionsgate acquired the film in 2011.

“Cabin” premiered to rave fan response at the South by Southwest festival in March, and Lionsgate believes that its movie may be able to gain momentum at the box office based on positive word of mouth. The studio is hoping that it will follow in the footsteps of the low-budget horror film “Insidious,” which launched with $13 million a year ago but eventually grossed a respectable $54 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Another new release this week, “Lockout,” is playing in roughly 2,300 theaters this weekend, about 1,000 fewer than “The Three Stooges.” Starring Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace, the film follows a man trying to rescue the president’s daughter from a prison in outer space. It was produced by FilmDistrict but is being distributed by Open Road Film, the joint venture between theater chains AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment.

Overseas, Universal Pictures is rolling out its sci-fi action film “Battleship” in 26 foreign markets this weekend, a month ahead of its May 18 debut in the U.S. Universal decided to unveil the film early internationally in part because the movie is aimed at males and the studio wanted to avoid coinciding with the popular European football season.

The movie about a naval fleet battling aliens is performing best in South Korea, where it opened Wednesday with $2.8 million — the third-biggest opening day in that country for an English-language film.

It is vital that “Battleship” — which stars “John Carter” star Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson and singer Rihanna — perform well abroad, considering its large $211 million production budget. Given the film’s emphasis on spectacular special effects, it’s expected to perform far better overseas than in the U.S., like previous effects-heavy blockbusters including “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

Universal held premieres in Japan, Australia and China to drum up local interest in the movie, though it won’t open in China and key territory Russia until next week.

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