The new Leonardo DiCaprio revenge epic "The Revenant" is likely to enjoy a solid nationwide debut at the box office, though it won't dethrone "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which is headed for its fourth straight weekend atop the charts in the U.S. and Canada.
"The Revenant," directed by 2015 Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu, could gross $20 million or more through Sunday, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience tracking surveys.
That's not a huge number for a movie that cost an estimated $135 million to make and endured significant challenges during production, including a lack of much-needed snow in its Canadian shooting location that forced the filmmakers to relocate to Argentina.
But widespread critical praise and sustained awards chatter for "The Revenant" should keep people coming to the theaters well after its debut weekend, analysts said.
DiCaprio — playing a frontiersman who's mauled by a bear and left for dead by his team of fur trappers — is up for best actor (drama) at Sunday night's Golden Globes. The 19th century western adventure has picked up three other Golden Globe nods for director, picture and original score. Awards analysts are closely watching the campaign for DiCaprio, who has been nominated for four acting Oscars but has never won.
"We're pretty optimistic about it, but not too optimistic," said Shawn Robbins, an analyst at BoxOffice.com. "There's been so much buzz around [DiCaprio's] performance. This is really his movie to sell."
"The Revenant's" commercial prospects could also benefit from the pedigree of Iñárritu, who directed last year's Best Picture Oscar winner "Birdman," and costar Tom Hardy. Distributor 20th Century Fox gave the R-rated movie an awards-qualifying run in four theaters starting Christmas Day, where it has grossed a strong $1.4 million so far.
Arnon Milchan's entertainment company New Regency co-financed the production, with additional funding from firms including RatPac Entertainment. New Regency, headquartered in Los Angeles, is hoping to repeat the success of its previous awards contenders including "Birdman" and the 2014 Best Picture victor "12 Years a Slave."
Meanwhile, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the seventh film in the Lucasfilm franchise, should gross $45 million to $50 million Friday through Sunday, adding to its already massive total.
The Walt Disney Co. blockbuster had raked in $750.2 million in ticket sales from the U.S. and Canada as of Monday, making it the second-highest-grossing movie of all time in those countries (not adjusting for inflation) behind only 2009's "Avatar." The J.J. Abrams-directed space opera should comfortably pass "Avatar's" record of $760.5 million this week.
The global total so far for the latest "Star Wars" film stands at more than $1.53 billion. That's the fourth-biggest worldwide box-office take ever, behind "Avatar," "Titanic" and "Jurassic World." It should add substantially to that haul when it opens in China, the world's second-largest film market, on Jan. 9.
"Star Wars" is expected to finally yield the No. 1 domestic position next week when Universal Pictures releases the Kevin Hart-Ice Cube buddy-cop sequel "Ride Along 2."
Focus Features is also introducing its new horror film "The Forest," starring "Game of Thrones" actress Natalie Dormer. Aimed at younger females and Latino moviegoers, the PG-13 supernatural scary flick is expected to gross $10 million or less through Sunday.
The newcomers will have to contend not only with "Star Wars" but with a stable of holdovers including Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" and the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg comedy "Daddy's Home."