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'Kong: Skull Island' poised for $50-million opening as studios take a monster franchise gamble

A war among beasts will play out at multiplexes this weekend as Hollywood’s long-enduring ape king tries to smack down a Wolverine.

“Kong: Skull Island,” the new monster movie from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, is expected to gross $45 million to $50 million Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. That may be enough to topple “Logan,” Hugh Jackman’s acclaimed final outing as the claw-wielding X-Men mutant, which scored a better-than expected $88 million in domestic sales in its opening weekend.

A $45-million debut for “Skull Island,” about a group of explorers who embark onto an uncharted island that turns out to be Kong’s domain, would be a respectable start for the popcorn flick. However, it was a pricey endeavor. “Skull Island” cost an estimated $185 million to make, not counting marketing, meaning its profitability will depend heavily on how it performs in the coming weeks and in other countries.

So why take the gamble of rebooting an 84-year-old beloved piece of Hollywood history a decade after Peter Jackson brought “King Kong” back to the big screen for Universal Pictures? For Warner Bros. and Legendary, it’s about global franchise-building.

“Skull Island” is the second installment in the studios’ planned series of monster films that started with Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” in 2014. The studios are planning a “Godzilla” sequel for 2019, and a “Godzilla vs. Kong” mashup for 2020, in what the companies have dubbed their MonsterVerse, a play on the so-called cinematic universes that have bolstered the finances of Disney’s Marvel Studios and Warner’s DC Entertainment.

Kong’s comeback is not expected to open anywhere near as high as “Godzilla’s” $93-million early summer debut three years ago. “Godzilla” ended up collecting a total of $200 million in the U.S. and Canada, plus $328 million from other counties. Jackson’s “King Kong” opened to $50 million in 2005, on its way to $218 million in domestic receipts and $332 million internationally.

Warner and Legendary are also looking beyond the U.S. market to boost revenue. “Skull Island” debuts in 65 countries this weekend, and opens in China on March 24. Legendary Entertainment is owned by Chinese cinema owner Dalian Wanda Group, and China’s Tencent Pictures also had a hand in the production, giving the movie an advantage in the second-largest film market.

Working in Kong’s favor will be mostly positive reviews, a happy outcome for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature film was the quirky coming-of-age drama “The Kings of Summer,” which was released by CBS Films in 2013. “Skull Island" should also benefit from a star-studded cast featuring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly.

Yet 20th Century Fox’s “Logan” could cut into some of the new creature feature’s grosses. The R-rated “Logan” has made a killing internationally, with $88 million in the U.S. and Canada and a global haul of $247 million.

“The main problem they have is ‘Logan’ doing so well,” said FBR & Co. analyst Barton Crockett, who follows box-office trends. “People will be deciding whether they want to see Wolverine or the ape.”

Then there’s the looming specter of “Get Out,” the topical Jordan Peele-directed horror movie that has become the low-budget breakout hit of the year. The $5-million picture from Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions has grossed $78 million in 10 days. Its second weekend declined only 15% from its opening — an eye-popping hold for a low-budget thriller. Analysts expect “Get Out” to post a strong third-place finish this time around after scoring $28 million last weekend.

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ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

@rfaughnder

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