The world, I must say, has righted itself in the past week. My box-office-prediction hot streak is back on track. Michigan got past Iowa, held onto its No. 2 ranking, and now has a cakewalk to the big game against Ohio State. And the only major new film release, Lions Gate's Saw III, playing in more than 3,000 venues, will win this weekend in a cakewalk of its own. I mean, really, I can't believe they're paying me for this: If you look up the phrase ''easy peasy'' in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of me holding this forecast column.
So let's take some time to talk about this weekend's foregone conclusion. Even if it were playing opposite big competition, SIII would be the champ; that it's got an open field makes scoring a touchdown even more certain. On this pre-Halloween weekend two years ago, Lions Gate stumbled into a smash franchise when the no-budget Saw debuted with $18.3 mil (en route to a $55.2 mil domestic total). The indie studio then quickly shot a sequel for a mere $4 mil, and that film, Saw II, debuted last October with $31.7 mil. It topped out at $87 mil domestically and was widely identified as one of 2005's most profitable releases, providing a better than 2,000 percent return on the initial investment. I'll tell ya, somebody at Lions Gate should teach a master's class on how to turn a buck in this crazy business.
And while they're at it, a seminar on clever marketing would be in order, too. One huge key to this franchise's success is its unabashed embrace of its hard-R rating. Just look at those advertisements. The poster for SII was one of the most ingenious things ever. It depicted two dirty fingers with shattered fingernails. That's it. Simple. The message was three-fold: (1) this is a sequel; (2) these fingers belong to someone who has been tortured or has been desperately trying to escape from somewhere; (3) if you go to this movie you'll dig your nails into your arm rest so hard that they'll shatter and you'll scream in agony. Brilliant. Audiences knew that they were in for the scare of their lives, and Lions Gate had no qualms about inflicting that pain and taking our money in the process. Honesty like that is hard to come by in this crazy business.
The lesson, of course, is so contrary to what I fear is the conventional wisdom in Hollywood. Audiences don't need to be tricked into seeing movies. In fact, they respond damn well if they're shown exactly what they're about to see. To wit, the poster for SIII shows three extracted teeth dangling from wires. It's another straightforward image that will make people wince â€¦ and then buy tickets. Now, the recent underperformance of The Grudge 2 raises a slight cause for alarm that the horror genre is growing tired, I suppose (it has only made $32.1 mil so far). Then again, that also means that SIII has even less competition to worry about. So look for it to bring in a $31 mil gross this weekend.
Scratching and clawing and biting their way to follow-up finishes will be a handful of other contenders, led by Focus Features' new historical action drama Catch a Fire. Set amidst apartheid South Africa, the fact-based film follows a young freedom fighter (Derek Luke) who is trailed by a government agent (Tim Robbins). Directed by Philip Noyce of Jack Ryan movie fame, it has a solid pedigree, sure, but its foreign setting, minimal star power, and moderate theater count (around 1,300), will keep grosses down to about $8 mil. That'll put it behind strong fourth-week player The Departed at $9 mil, but ahead of second-week holdover Flags of Our Fathers at $7 mil.
Okay, so have fun this weekend and may everybody make it to Sunday with a firm hold on their box-office-prognostication streaks, rankings in the college-football polls, fingernails, and teeth.