Girls will duke it out

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The two films vying for first place at the weekend box office both have deadly stares at their centers. In the horror movie “The Eye,” a blind Jessica Alba receives a corneal transplant enabling her to see the departed. And in “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour,” the lethal glances will come from 10-year-old girls whose parents refuse to fork out as much as $20 for tickets to the 3-D music movie.

That these two films and Eva Longoria Parker’s “Over Her Dead Body,” which is also opening in wide release Friday, are expected to appeal to female viewers is no coincidence. With many American men ready to pack as much five-layer dip into their coronary arteries as possible on Super Bowl Sunday, movie studios plan to turn the football championship weekend into a mini chick-flick film festival.

At the same time last year, Screen Gems released its horror movie “The Messengers” to a moderately strong first-place opening of $14.7 million, while Universal’s romantic comedy “Because I Said So” premiered in second place with $13.1 million.

“The reason we picked this weekend is for that exact reason,” said Steve Rothenberg, the theatrical distribution chief for “The Eye’s” Lionsgate Films. “We hope that females will say, ‘You guys stay home and eat the chips, but we’re going out to see a movie.’ ”

Even though most horror movies focus on (usually underdressed) women in sexual and violent peril, girls and women younger than 25 flock to such movies -- sometimes with boyfriends in tow, and just as often with a group of like-minded girlfriends. The audience for a typical genre film is about 60% female, and some movies draw an even greater percentage of young women. Research experts say “The Eye” shows signs of healthy young male appeal too, because Alba is such a fantasy figure.

“The Eye” will also offer a test of the allure of a scary movie rated PG-13. A number of recent high-profile genre films -- last weekend’s Diane Lane movie “Untraceable” and last year’s “Hostel: Part II” among them -- were in part undone by their relentlessly R-rated, stomach-turning violence. While some preview audience members may say they want rape and dismemberment, moviegoers are angling in the opposite direction.

“From the very beginning, our goal was to create a classy horror thriller, not a movie that relied on gore and exploitative shock,” says Don Granger, a producer of “The Eye.”

The shock for “Hannah Montana” is different. Rather than charge the usual $8 or so for admission into Disney’s concert movie, a number of movie theaters have nearly tripled the tariff to as much as $20, which Los Angeles’ the Bridge Cinema De Lux is charging. They are able to extract so much in part because the movie will be in theaters only for a week (although Disney may extend the run by a week if the film opens strongly) and because it’s in 3-D.

For those with no pre-pubescent girls around the house, 15-year-old Miley Cyrus is the real-life equivalent of a Wii video game console: There’s just not enough of her to go around.

When tickets for a national Cyrus concert tour went on sale last fall, they sold out in minutes. Some parents paid thousands of dollars for scalped admissions, and state attorneys general opened investigations into how ticket brokers landed so many seats.

Disney, whose cable channel launched Cyrus’ “Hannah Montana” television franchise, is banking that the demand for her country-tinged music will translate into a filmgoer stampede. But the company is entering largely untested waters. While most multiplexes can add auditoriums to accommodate demand, “Hannah Montana” can’t expand beyond its 684 screens because the film is shown only in theaters equipped for 3-D.

That said, Disney was able to get theater owners to commit to the film two months ago, meaning that advance-sale movie tickets, which were available starting Dec.1, could be given as holiday presents. The studio isn’t saying how many pre-sale dollars it has banked so far, but it can’t be insignificant. Online ticket seller Fandango reported that more than 1,000 “Hannah Montana” showtimes were already sold out as of Wednesday.

Because of the novelty of the “Hannah Montana” release plan and the young age of its target audience, tracking surveys have struggled to estimate an opening weekend gross for the film. But look for “HannahMontana” to win the weekend with as much as $26 million in receipts, with “The Eye” in second with returns of about $17 million.