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Box office preview: 'Machete' and 'Going the Distance' go head-to-head over Labor Day weekend

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macheteImage Credit: Rico TorresSummer may not technically end until Sept. 22, but as far as Hollywood is concerned, Labor Day weekend marks the official end of the summer movie season — and usually, it goes out with a whimper. Only two movies that have opened over the Labor Day holiday (2007’s Halloween remake, and 2005’s Transporter 2) have grossed over $20 million for the four-day weekend; most films are lucky to make half that. Coupled with Hurricane Earl bearing down on the East Coast, this weekend’s major debuts — Going the Distance, Machete, and The American (which opened Wednesday) — have their work cut out for them. Your regular box office prognosticator Nicole Sperling is on vacation, so here’s how I see the weekend shaping up over the next four days.

1. Machete: $15 million

The 2007 exploitation double feature Grindhouse, which featured a faux-trailer for a rousing revenge thriller called Machete, grossed only $11.6 million over its three-day debut. Normally, that wouldn’t be a promising precedent for director Robert Rodriguez’s feature-length version of Machete, especially since star Danny Trejo (pictured) usually plays supporting roles in, well, low-budget exploitation thrillers. But if Machete, which will open in 2,669 locations, can edge past Grindhouse’s three-day gross — and early tracking seems to suggest it will — then I think it could push to a healthy $15 million through Labor Day. Expect competition from The Expendables and Takers, however, to keep the gross from going much higher.

2. Going the Distance: $14.5 million

It’s true that Drew Barrymore’s co-star in Going the Distance, the always charming Justin Long, has had his share of luck over Labor Day weekend: The 2001 horror flick Jeepers Creepers, his first starring role, opened to $15.8 million, then a Labor Day weekend record. But since then Long’s been more of a winning supporting player (and Mac spokesperson) than a romantic leading man. And Barrymore’s movies tend to open in the $10 million to $14 million range when they don’t boast a co-star who’s a sure-fire box office draw. Given the lack of female-friendly competition, though, I reckon Going the Distance, which is opening in 3030 theaters, could give Machete a run for its money.

3. Takers: $12.5 million

Thanks in part to the lousy weather on the Atlantic Coast, I expect a roughly 50 percent drop for last weekend’s by-a-nose champ, which would put its three-day total around $10.25 million, its four-day gross at around $12.5 million, and its total cume approaching $39 million. Not bad for a movie that sat on the shelf for roughly a year.

4. The American: $10.5 million

Like Barrymore, George Clooney is a bona fide movie star whose wide opening weekends nonetheless remain stuck in the $10 million to $14 million range (when “Ocean’s” isn’t in the title, anyway). His latest film, a lean European thriller that’s won mostly mild critical praise, indeed opened on Wednesday to a mild $1.7 million in 2,721 theaters. I figure the film will struggle to make it to eight figures for the four-day weekend, with a six-day total edging toward $14 million.

5. The Last Exorcism: $8 million

Horror movies historically have significant drop-offs in their second weekend, and the horrific word-of-mouth on this movie — especially its ending — points to a truly blood-chilling 60 to 70 percent box office plunge, putting its four-day gross close to $8 million and its cume nearing $33 million.