If Hollywood actually made any sense, the best movies would all be blockbusters, 2001: A Space Odyssey would have won Best Picture (or, heck, even been nominated), and Christmas movies would come out — duh — at Christmas. But no. This lovably screwy industry delights in messing with our brains, which is why Santa usually makes his annual sleigh ride through multiplexes several weeks early, in November, while Christmas Day itself tends to host folks like Tom Ripley and Patch Adams. Go figure.
Anyway, point is, Christmas is here, box office fans! Fred Claus kicks off the holiday season this weekend, and as a gift to its filmmakers, audiences will make it No. 1. But will the yuletide farce’s fellow new wide releases, Lions for Lambs and P2, find lumps of coal in their stockings? Check out my predictions below and then go ahead and make your own picks in EW.com’s Fall Box Office Challenge. Because, you know, ’tis the season to prognosticate.
THE (LIKELY) TOP FIVE
Warner Bros. · PG · 3,603 theaters · NEW
Let me just say this off the bat: If this movie doesn’t become a huge hit, I’ll be surprised. Really surprised. Here you have as close to a sure thing as there is — a PG-rated Christmas movie starring one of the most popular actors around, Vince Vaughn. I mean, people of all ages love PG-rated movies. And Christmas flicks. And Vince Vaughn. (Okay, critics may not be loving Fred Claus, but you can’t win ’em all.) This comedy about Santa (Paul Giamatti) and his buffoonish big brother (Vaughn), from Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, reminds me of that $173.4 mil hit Elf, which debuted with $31.1 mil on this weekend four years ago. And let me tell you, Will Ferrell was half the draw then that Vaughn is now. The actor is coming off the double-smash success of Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up, and if he struck gold with those grown-up flicks, just imagine how he can fare with this movie’s broader audience.
Weekend prediction: $30 million
Universal · R · 3,059 theaters · 2nd weekend
The Oscar race begins here, people. After its surprisingly huge $43.6 mil debut, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe’s true-crime thriller has been earning several mil per day during the week and should hold on to more than 50 percent of its audience over the weekend. Which will certainly boost its awards-season cause. Martin Scorsese finally got his Academy Award last time — think this’ll be Ridley Scott’s year?
Weekend prediction: $25 million
Paramount · PG · 3,944 theaters · 2nd weekend
Don’t let that second-place finish fool you: Jerry Seinfeld’s animated flick pretty much lived up to expectations with its honey of a $38 mil debut last weekend. Its staying power, however, will come into focus during this frame, when Bee Movie faces Fred Claus‘ challenge for the family crowd.
Weekend prediction: $23 million
Lions for Lambs
United Artists · R · 2,215 theaters · NEW
If five years ago you had told me that I’d be picking a new Tom Cruise movie to premiere in fourth place with just $11 mil, I’d probably have laughed like Goose did in Top Gun when Iceman told him that the plaque for the alternates was down in the ladies’ room. But here I am, predicting exactly that. I’ve lost that loving feeling. It’s not so much Cruise’s fault — his off-screen antics haven’t seemed to hurt his box office returns too much, if you consider the fact that his streak of $100 mil-plus domestic grossers has continued for eight years now. (Of course, it’ll likely end here.) Rather, quite simply, moviegoers don’t appear to be at all interested in serious, topical dramas about the War in Iraq (In the Valley of Elah), the War on Terror (Rendition), or the War in Michael Clayton’s conscience these days; nothing along those lines has really worked this fall. In fact, Cruise and his costars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford may be the only reasons why this talky, thinky movie (the first film from the new, Cruise-run United Artists) won’t completely bomb.
Weekend prediction: $11 million
Summit · R · 2,131 theaters · NEW
Speaking of Seinfeld, remember the one where Jerry & Co. can’t remember where they parked their car? Everybody can relate to that. As opposed to this horror film, about a hottie (Rachel Nichols) who’s trapped in an underground garage and stalked by Wes Bentley (that’s right, he of the dopey dancing plastic bag). Boy, that sucks even more than hauling around a heavy air conditioner.
Weekend prediction: $5 million