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'Hidden Figures' is likely to draw crowds as 'Rogue One' stays on top of the box office

'Hidden Figures' likely to draw crowds as 'Rogue One' stays on top

Walt Disney Co.'s "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is expected to rule the box office for the third weekend in a row. But audiences are also showing interest in a very different kind of space movie — the Oscar hopeful "Hidden Figures."

The new space-race drama, about a team of black, female mathematicians and engineers working for NASA during the Mercury and Apollo missions, is expected to gross $20 million or more Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys.

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That may be good enough to finish in second place behind the Lucasfilm juggernaut — a strong start given the picture's modest $25-million budget. The studios behind the film, 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment, are more conservative in their estimates, projecting $15 million to $17 million for the wide-release debut.

The movie had already shown strength in its limited run, taking in an impressive $2.6 million so far from 25 theaters since Christmas Day. This weekend it will expand to about 2,400 locations, where the studios hope it will benefit from strong reviews and positive reactions from audiences.

Star power could also help, as could the movie's generally upbeat tone and social message. "Hidden Figures" stars Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), Taraji P. Henson ("Empire") and Janelle Monae ("Moonlight"), plus turns by Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst and music by Pharrell Williams.

Nonetheless, it almost certainly won't top "Rogue One," which closed 2016 with two straight weekends at No. 1 and has grossed $440.9 million in the U.S. and Canada, making it the second-biggest domestic movie of the year behind Disney's "Finding Dory." The global tally for "Rogue One" has exceeded $800 million with its release in China still to come Friday.

Meanwhile, Sony's Screen Gems division will court action-horror flick fans with its new sequel "Underworld: Blood Wars," the fifth movie in the series about a centuries-long conflict between vampires and a clan of werewolves. "Blood Wars" again stars Kate Beckinsale as vengeful vampire warrior Selene.

The movie is expected to gross $15 million to $19 million during its initial weekend in North American theaters, which would be less than the $25 million collected by the previous installment, "Underworld Awakening" (2012). But the studio is probably looking to score with the franchise's international fan base. The last film in the series did 60% of its ticket sales overseas, and "Blood Wars" has thus far grossed about $45 million from countries including Brazil and Russia.

Also expanding into wide release is Spanish director J.A. Bayona's new indie fantasy picture "A Monster Calls," about a 12-year-old boy who befriends a giant monster as he copes with his mother's terminal illness. Felicity Jones plays the child's sick mother, and Liam Neeson provides voice-over and motion capture technique as the tree-like creature.

The movie is not expected to do much business in the U.S. and Canada this weekend. It's probably headed for a domestic opening of less than $10 million Friday through Sunday. However, it was a success in Bayona's native Spain, where it has scored $28.5 million since October. It is the highest grossing movie of 2016 in that country. Focus Features is handling domestic distribution for the film, which cost an estimated $43 million to make.

Another contender will surely be Lionsgate's "La La Land," buoyed by its seven Golden Globe nominations. The musical set in Los Angeles has grossed $37 million to date, and will reach 1,500 theaters Friday.

"Rogue One," "La La Land" and Illumination-Universal's "Sing" have provided a running start for the movie business this new year. The industry hit a record $11.37 billion in 2016 for the U.S. and Canada, according to ComScore. That's a 2% increase from 2015, propelled by big movies such as "Finding Dory" and "Secret Life of Pets." But much of the increase has been attributed to higher ticket prices, not attendance. Theater admissions remained stagnant at about 1.3 billion tickets sold last year.

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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