Arts & Entertainment

'Awake' may not rouse sleepy week

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This is the first of a new weekly feature that will project the weekend box-office performance and analyze marketing campaigns for movies opening and returning in theaters.

With the only major release hitting theaters this week, the backers of the medical thriller "Awake" hope to catch the competition napping.

It's been six months since a wide release had a weekend to itself, when that friendly beast "Shrek the Third" frightened off any challengers.

But rival studios aren't lying awake at night over Weinstein Co.'s "Awake," starring Hayden Christensen as a patient whose failed anesthetic leaves him alert but paralyzed during open heart surgery and Jessica Alba as his troubled wife.

The movie opens today at 2,002 theaters in the U.S. and Canada and at best will be a distant second for the weekend behind Disney's "Enchanted," currently in theaters, but is more likely to end up in third or even fourth place, industry executives and analysts say.

What really spooks Hollywood executives is the light business films historically have scared up on the weekend after Thanksgiving -- often the low point of the fourth quarter.

"This is the worst weekend of the year for releasing movies, in my opinion," said David Tuckerman, New Line Cinema's president of domestic distribution. "Maybe everybody is exhausted from Thanksgiving or busy turning their attention to the Christmas season."

Tuckerman ought to know. A year ago, his studio's "The Nativity Story" opened to mixed reviews and failed to spark any box-office magic while two competing releases, "Turistas" and "National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj," fared even worse.

Two years ago, the science-fiction tale "Aeon Flux," starring Charlize Theron, flopped. Even the Tom Cruise epic "The Last Samurai," which opened to $24 million domestically during this weekend in 2003, was deemed a disappointment by the star's standards.

"Awake's" target demographic is female viewers under 25, the sweet spot for the horror-suspense genre in recent years. Weinstein's advertising shows off its handsome star, who played Anakin Skywalker in the latest "Star Wars" movies, and the romantic relationship between the Christensen and Alba characters.

The trailers and TV ads briskly set up the protagonist's horrifying predicament, the hook that is one of "Awake's" chief selling points. They note that 21 million Americans undergo general anesthesia every year, adding eerily, "One in 700 remain awake."

"Awake," however, is more a cautionary tale on the risk of getting one's medical information from movie marketers, said Christopher Bettin, a spokesman for the American Assn. of Nurse Anesthetists in Park Ridge, Ill.

Anesthetic awareness, as the condition is called, happens less frequently than the figure cited and is usually fleeting, Bettin said, "although that wouldn't make for a very long movie." He said the ads could prompt patients to become "unduly alarmed" about the danger.

Weinstein declined to comment, but the company -- never known for its understated marketing -- put out a news release a few weeks ago playing up the film's fear factor.

"This film will do to surgery what 'Jaws' did to swimming in the ocean," producer Joana Vicente proclaimed. It even included a medical disclaimer: " 'Awake' may not be suitable for those about to undergo anesthesia for surgery."

Leftovers usually top the charts on the post-Thanksgiving weekend, and that trend is likely to continue.

Although "Awake" is the only newcomer, multiplexes will be crammed with about a dozen major returning movies also vying for attention.

Disney's "Enchanted," one of five major films that opened the day before the holiday, will repeat as the No. 1 grossing title. With a modest second week drop-off, the musical fairy tale starring Amy Adams could take in $18 million in the U.S. and Canada, say insiders and analysts, for a projected total to date of about $72 million.

The R-rated "Awake," being distributed domestically by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., could vie for the No. 2 spot with two holdovers: Sony Pictures' African American comedy-drama "This Christmas," last weekend's surprise runner-up, and Paramount Pictures' animated epic "Beowulf," whose box office has been boosted by its expensive 3-D screenings.

The three movies are expected to rake in about $8 million each.

For the last spot in the top five, 20th Century Fox's thriller "Hitman," based on the video game, could nose out Warner Bros.' "Fred Claus" and DreamWorks Animation SKG's "Bee Movie" with about $6 million in ticket sales at the weekend box office.

The lack of new release competition should enable "Awake," which was made for less than $10 million, to eke out more business than it would have otherwise generated in today's crowded marketplace. Grosses for holdover titles typically fall by 50% a week.

"This gives us our best window of opportunity," said Clark Woods, president of domestic distribution at MGM. "Traditionally the box-office trend for the weekend is low-grossing, but that doesn't mean you can't do some business."

Specialty distributors, with an eye on the upcoming Oscars, will test the waters this weekend with a few limited releases, notably director Julian Schnabel's wrenching real-life drama "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and Tamara Jenkins' dark comedy "The Savages," starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Fox Searchlight opened "The Savages" on Wednesday at four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, in a bid for a little breathing room of its own, said Steve Gilula, chief operating officer for the News Corp. unit.

As expected, critics have been kind to both "The Savages," the story of a brother and sister who come together to care for their ailing father, and Miramax's "The Diving Bell," about a French magazine editor whose life is altered when he suffers a stroke.

"Both films are getting attention, so it was strategically prudent to separate the two," Gilula said.

josh.friedman@latimes.com

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