Dave Karger
November 01, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

Are movie audiences still wild about Harry? We’ll find out, as ”Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets” hits theaters this weekend.

At the same time last year, ”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” kicked off the film franchise with a then-unheard-of $90.3 million, making it the top three-day debut ever (until this summer’s ”Spider-Man,” of course). Overall, the film earned $317.6 million, good enough to become the No. 1 film of 2001.

All indications are that ”Chamber” is scarier, more serious, and just plain better than ”The Sorcerer’s Stone.” But will that mean bigger bucks? Anticipation for the second film simply doesn’t seem as high as it was for the first. (And that two-hour-and-40-minute running time doesn’t help.) Nevertheless, a huge debut should still be in order — especially since it’s opening in a record 3,682 theaters. Look for ”Harry” to conjure up a debut in the $75 million range.

That’ll push Eminem’s hit ”8 Mile” to second place. The rap star’s drama debuted last weekend with an impressive $51.2 million. Strong reviews and some possible repeat business could add up to a smaller-than-average decline in the 35 percent range, to $33 million. And Tim Allen’s family comedy ”The Santa Clause 2” should also slip about 25 percent to $19 million for the third spot.

The week’s other new release, ”Half Past Dead,” will try to snag fourth place. The action drama stars Steven Seagal as an inmate at Alcatraz. Last year, Seagal teamed up with rap star DMX to moneymaking results with ”Exit Wounds.” Now he’s joined forces with Ja Rule and Kurupt, hoping their fan bases will come out in big numbers. They probably will — to the tune of about $12 million.

And Naomi Watts’ scary thriller ”The Ring” stands to fall 35 percent to $10 million, occupying the fifth slot, behind ”Half Past Dead.” Unless moviegoers find the prospect of a Steven Seagal movie too scary.

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