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'Girl on the Train' expected to top 'Birth of a Nation' and 'Miss Peregrine'

"The Girl on the Train" featuresEmily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux,Luke Evans andAllison Janney.

The new Emily Blunt thriller, "The Girl on the Train," is expected to ride a locomotive of literary buzz to the top of the U.S. box-office charts this weekend, adding some fuel to what has been a mixed fall movie season so far.

DreamWorks Pictures' adaptation of the best-selling Paula Hawkins novel could gross $25 million to $30 million in ticket sales from the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. That would certainly be enough to evict "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children," which won last weekend with a $29-million bow and will dip this week.

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The movie business is hoping to pick up momentum this month after September proved a rocky ride for ticket sales. Warner Bros.’ “Sully” and Sony-MGM’s “The Magnificent Seven” put up robust numbers, but other films such as Lionsgate’s “Blair Witch” and Relativity’s “Masterminds” faltered. September ticket sales totaled $587 million, down 4.8% from last year, according to data firm ComScore. 

Nonetheless, so far this year the domestic box-office is up 4.6% at $8.6 billion.

September and October typically aren't blockbuster months for Hollywood, sitting between the busy summer and the major holiday and awards season releases. While Sony's "Inferno" and Warner Bros.' "The Accountant" could do solid business, there aren't any likely breakout hits on the calendar until Marvel's "Doctor Strange" opens Nov. 4, said Shawn Robbins, an analyst with BoxOffice.com.

"I think we're in slow-burn mode leading up to November," Robbins said. "There are a handful of titles that could do well this month, but 'Doctor Strange' looks like it will kick off November in a big way."

A $30-million debut would be a strong start for “Girl on the Train,” which was directed by Tate Taylor and cost about $45 million to make. Blunt plays a recently divorced woman who becomes wrapped up in a missing persons investigation. It’s the first Universal Pictures release produced by Steven Spielberg’s new company, Amblin Partners, after his DreamWorks shingle left Disney this year. Universal is projecting a more conservative debut of $20 million or more. 

The popularity of the film's source material should boost its prospects among older female audiences, despite mixed reviews. The 2014 David Fincher movie "Gone Girl," similarly marketed as a twisted R-rated thriller based on a bestseller, opened to $37.5 million on its way to a total of $168 million domestically.

"Girl" is expected to far outpace Nate Parker's critically acclaimed "The Birth of a Nation," about Nat Turner's deadly 1831 slave rebellion.

Twentieth Century Fox's specialty division Fox Searchlight bought the rights to the movie for a staggering $17.5 million after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, hoping it had an awards season contender on its hands. The themes of the film are timely and dovetail with Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.

The picture is expected to open with $7 million to $9 million in ticket sales this weekend, but its ultimate success will depend on how it does in the following weeks. For comparison, Paramount's civil rights drama "Selma" opened to $11 million in 2014 and eventually grossed a modest $52 million, even with the benefit of a best picture Oscar nomination.

The rapturous praise initially heaped on “Birth” has been partly overshadowed by renewed attention to a 1999 case in which Parker was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student while at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted in 2001 and has maintained the sex was consensual, this week telling Anderson Cooper in a "60 Minutes" interview "I don't feel guilty." His accuser committed suicide in 2012. 

Fox Searchlight has remained confident, adding about 400 theaters to its opening run during the last month to bring its footprint to 2,100 locations. Frank Rodriguez, head of domestic distribution for Fox Searchlight, played down the financial impact the controversy might have on the movie, saying theater owners have not expressed concerns.

"No exhibitor I have spoken with in the last month and a half has brought up that situation," Rodriguez said.

Also debuting this weekend is “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life,” a PG-rated comedy about a young boy who summons a school-wide rebellion against a strict principal’s regime. The kids’ movie, from CBS Films and Lionsgate, is adapted from a novel by James Patterson and is expected to gross about $8 million.  

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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