DreamWorks’ ‘Dragon’ may not be as fierce as visualized

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The dragon may not roar too loudly at the box office this weekend.

DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” which is being distributed by Paramount Pictures, probably will sell between $40 million and $45 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have seen pre-release polling.

That’s significantly less than the $59.3 million that DreamWorks’ last animated feature, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” opened to on the same weekend last year.

The new film, which cost $165 million to produce, is coming into a crowded market for family movies, however. “Alice in Wonderland” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” are expected to do significant business this weekend after grossing $34.2 million and $22.1 million, respectively, last weekend.

Nonetheless, an opening in the predicted $40-something-million range would be a blow for “How to Train Your Dragon,” particularly given that it should generate significantly more money than “Monsters” for each ticket sold because of 3-D ticket premiums. “Dragon” is playing at about 2,150 theaters with 3-D screens, 600 more than “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

In addition, a recent study by media analyst Richard Greenfield found that 10 theaters in major cities are raising their average price for a 3-D ticket by 8% this weekend in response to the success of 3-D films “Alice in Wonderland” and “Avatar.”

Television advertisements for the new DreamWorks film have focused heavily on 3-D and the titular creatures, referring to the movie simply as “DreamWorks’ Dragons.” On billboards and print ads the words “Dragon” and “3-D” dwarf the words “How to train your.”

Unlike past DreamWorks Animation releases such as the “Shrek” and “Madagascar” series, “How to Train Your Dragon” is relying heavily on reviews, which have thus far been overwhelmingly positive. If audiences respond as well to the movie as critics have, it could have a long run at the box office and make up for a soft start.

Paramount is also hopeful that the new DreamWorks animated feature will do well overseas. The film already opened in Russia last weekend to $7.5 million, about 30% higher than the debut there of “Monsters vs. Aliens,” which had a weak overall international performance. “Dragon” also opens this weekend in Australia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and several major European markets including Germany.

The only other film opening nationwide this weekend is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1980s time travel comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Produced for a relatively modest $36 million, the movie is expected to have a decent opening of $15 million to $20 million based primarily on interest from young men.

A solid start for the film would be very welcome news for MGM, which is on the verge of either being acquired, restructuring or filing for bankruptcy and hasn’t released a new movie since September’s underperforming remake of “Fame.”

“Hot Tub” probably will compete for second place at the box office behind “Dragon” as “Alice in Wonderland” marks its fourth weekend.