Zac Efron and '17 Again' expected to rule box office

One Disney Channel star is gunning to take down another at the box office this weekend.

Warner Bros. opens its Zac Efron comedy "17 Again" today in hopes of garnering much of the same young female audience that made Walt Disney Co.'s "Hannah Montana: The Movie" No. 1 last weekend.

It's no coincidence that the "High School Musical" heartthrob, whose photo adorns so many teen and tween girls' walls right next to "Hannah" star Miley Cyrus, is hitting the big screen just one week after his former cable compatriot.

Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner, said the studio was aiming to take a big chunk of the "Hannah" audience that's finishing up spring break this weekend.

Given its PG-13 rating, compared with "Hannah's" G, "17 Again" will draw somewhat older crowds, with many adults going on their own volition rather than being dragged along by a 12-year-old girl. But it looks like the overall audience will be about the same, as pre-release tracking indicates the movie, which comes from Warner's New Line label, will likely gross in the mid-$20-million range.

That's exactly what was predicted for "Hannah Montana" before that film went on to open with $32.3 million. A strong Friday, when some kids are still out of school, and positive word of mouth could propel "17 Again" into that range.

If the movie performs as predicted, it could provide a major boost for the career of Efron, whose smiling visage is plastered on billboards across the country, proving that his star power extends beyond Disney-branded singing and dancing.

One of the weekend's other new films, "State of Play," doesn't look like it will provide a similar boost for its lead, Russell Crowe. Crowe plays an investigative reporter who uncovers a government conspiracy. Tracking reports peg the political drama to open in the low-teens, which has to be a disappointing figure for Universal Studios, given the movie's $60-million-plus budget.

Low expectations for "State of Play" are another sign that ticket sales are increasingly being driven by younger and less affluent moviegoers, as older crowds seem happier to stay home and watch DVDs or TiVo. A couple of other sophisticated dramas released in recent months, "Duplicity" and "Body of Lies" (the latter of which also starred Crowe), both struggled at the box office, reaching domestic ticket totals of only $37.4 million and $39.4 million, respectively.

In an effort to attract an audience younger than the over-40 crowd, with which the film is tracking best, Universal's ads for "State of Play" have increasingly emphasized the film's thriller elements and shocking ending. That's probably a bit more sexy for those who go out on Friday nights than, as a review might put it, "an intelligent exploration of the state of journalism and politics in modern America."

In a development few would have predicted a year ago, "State of Play" might even get beat by Lionsgate's "Crank: High Voltage." The high-octane action flick starring Jason Statham is likely to perform similar to the original "Crank," which made $10.5 million on its opening weekend in September 2007.

The film has been aggressively targeted at young males with a digital-heavy ad campaign, which included a big ad on YouTube's home page, a Facebook contest and a free iPhone application. An opening in the $15-million range would surely please Lionsgate and co-financier Lakeshore Entertainment, considering that the entire budget for "Crank: High Voltage" was less than Crowe's $20-million fee for "State of Play."

"Hannah Montana" will be competing with those two films to be a distant No. 2 at the box office. February 2008's concert film based on the Disney Channel series and last fall's "High School Musical 3" both experienced 60%-plus drops in their second weekend in theaters.

There's no reason to think "Hannah" won't tap out its enthusiastic young fans just as quickly.

Still, Disney probably isn't concerned. Strong grosses Monday through Wednesday during spring break week have added $9.4 million to the "Hannah Montana" box office take, for a total so far of $41.7 million.

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benfritz@yahoo.com

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