Tyler Perry will ride herd over an elephant at the box office this weekend.
"Madea's Big Happy Family," the latest release from the prolific filmmaker-writer-actor, is expected to gross about $30 million, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. "Water for Elephants," a romantic drama based on Sara Gruen's bestselling novel about a Great Depression-era traveling circus, should trail with about $15 million.
The weekend's other new wide release, "African Cats," an animal documentary featuring lions and cheetahs, is expected to sell about $7 million worth of tickets.
All of the new releases will face competition from last weekend's top movie, the 3-D animated "Rio." The cartoon about birds on a Brazilian adventure has been performing well over the week, a time when many children are on spring break. On Wednesday alone, it collected $3.6 million — and its total in the U.S. and Canada stands at just over $50 million. By the end of this weekend, "Rio" should add at least $20 million to its take.
Tyler Perry's new film is the fourth featuring Madea — the sassy, plus-size grandmother he plays — as a protagonist. His first Madea film, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," opened in February 2005 to $21.9 million and wound up with $50.6 million domestically. The Madea movies have only risen in popularity since: "Madea's Family Reunion" opened in 2006 to $30 million and finished with $63.3 million, and "Madea Goes to Jail" opened in 2009 with $41 million and went on to gross $90.5 million.
"Madea's Big Happy Family" cost Lionsgate about $25 million to produce, meaning that if projections are correct, it should be off to a good start financially. However, the opening weekend will be especially important for the film because its core audience of older African American women typically rushes out to see Perry's movies when they debut.
"Water for Elephants," which stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, is generating interest from the "Twilight" heartthrob's young female fan base as well as from older women familiar with the book. The movie cost 20th Century Fox about $40 million to produce.
Although Pattinson has proved his box-office clout as a vampire, he has yet to successfully open a movie outside of Summit Entertainment's "Twilight" franchise. "Remember Me," the March 2010 drama about 9/11, flopped domestically with just $19.1 million.
Overseas, two big summer tent poles that have yet to premiere in the U.S. and Canada have opened internationally and will continue rolling out this weekend. Universal Pictures' sequel "Fast Five," which hits domestic theaters next weekend, opened in Australia on Wednesday, where its two-day gross stands at $4.34 million. The heist movie featuring high-speed car races will open in Britain, South Korea and New Zealand this weekend. Paramount Pictures' Marvel property "Thor," which launches stateside May 6, opens in Australia this weekend.
Sony Pictures Classics will have two films in limited release. "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," the latest documentary from filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, opens in 18 theaters. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "Incendies," nominated for best foreign language film at this year's Oscars, opens in one theater in Los Angeles and two in New York.