A pack of Central Park Zoo animals could tromp on the king of science fiction at the box office this weekend.
The animated 3-D family film "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" is expected to debut with about $55 million, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys. That would give the film a slight edge over director Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," which is expected to sell between $50 million and $55 million worth of ticket sales.
The studios behind both movies are predicting softer openings. Paramount Pictures, which is distributing "Madagascar 3," estimates that the picture will debut with $45 million, while 20th Century Fox says it believes that "Prometheus" will start off with a disappointing sum in the $30-million range.
The "Madagascar" franchise has been one of the most successful properties for DreamWorks Animation. The original grossed $532.7 million worldwide in 2005, and the sequel collected $603.9 million globally three years later. "Madagascar 3," which cost around $145 million to produce, takes the gang of escaped zoo animals to Europe, where they become part of a traveling circus.
The movie is one of the last DreamWorks films that may be released by Paramount Pictures, as the studio's distribution deal with the Viacom Inc.-owned studio expires at the end of this year. DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg is still weighing whether the animation studio will be able to self-distribute its films.
Like most of DreamWorks' movies, "Madagascar 3" will likely gross more overseas than in the U.S. and Canada. However, the movie's international receipts could be negatively affected by Euro 2012. The ultra-popular European Championship for national soccer teams begins Friday and runs through the end of the month.
This weekend, the movie is debuting in 28 foreign countries, but only three -- France, Belgium and Switzerland -- are in Europe, even though the film is set there.
Meanwhile, Fox spent about $130 million after tax credits to make "Prometheus," which follows a group of explorers trying to uncover the origins of human civilization. The movie stars an ensemble cast that includes Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace.
In the last decade, Scott has had a poor track record at the box office, with flops including 2005's "Kingdom of Heaven" and 2008's "Body of Lies." The director's biggest commercial success was 2000's Oscar-winning movie "Gladiator," starring his frequent collaborator Russell Crowe -- though he is still best known for his groundbreaking sci-fi movies, "Blade Runner" and "Alien." In fact, many fans have for years been debating whether or not "Prometheus" is a prequel to "Alien," because the two movies share similar themes.
It remains to be seen how the film's R-rating will affect its box-office prospects, as most of the summer's big-budget live-action movies are rated PG-13. Outside of raunchy comedies, there have hardly been any R-rated films to hit theaters during the summer in the last decade. The sword-and-sandal epic "300" was rated R and ended up being a box-office smash in 2007, but that was released in March.
Last weekend, "Prometheus" debuted overseas in 15 foreign countries and has since grossed a healthy $51 million. This weekend, the film will play in a total of 35 international markets, including new locations Australia and South Korea.
A handful of independent movies are also opening this weekend in limited release. Magnolia Pictures will launch the Robert Pattinson romantic period drama "Bel Ami" in 15 theaters. Meanwhile, "Safety Not Guaranteed," a quirky picture about time travel starring Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza, will debut in nine locations.
That movie premiered to positive buzz at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it was acquired by FilmDistrict.
Also opening this weekend is "Lola Versus," Fox Searchlight's romantic comedy featuring Greta Gerwig. The movie, which follows a young woman entangled in a love triangle, has earned middling reviews and will debut in four theaters.
Follow Amy Kaufman on Twitter @AmyKinLA