‘Ender’s Game’ expected to top ‘Free Birds,’ ‘Last Vegas’ at box office

By Amy Kaufman
Los Angeles Times via McClatchy Tribune

LOS ANGELES — “Ender’s Game” will have a happy beginning this weekend, but maybe not a happy ending.

The pricey adaptation of Scott Orson Card’s popular 1985 sci-fi novel is poised to debut at No. 1 with a so-so $23 million, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys.

But the animated 3-D film “Free Birds” – which cost only half as much to make as “Ender’s Game” – won’t be far behind, with a decent $20 million.

The only other film debuting nationwide this weekend, the AARP-aimed comedy “Last Vegas,” is poised to launch with a solid $15 million.

“Ender’s Game” has had more than a decadelong journey to the big screen. OddLot Entertainment producer Gigi Pritzker struggled for years to persuade Warner Bros. to sell her the rights to the project. After she got them, many studios were hesitant to take on a project with subject matter that some viewed as dated. Ultimately, the project got the green light at Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment, which co-financed the $110 million production with visual effects company Digital Domain and OddLot.

Starring up-and-comers Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, the futuristic “Ender’s Game” follows a young boy who is recruited by the military to defend the human race from an alien invasion. But in an era where teenage moviegoers flock to more grown-up films such as “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight,” younger ticket buyers might not hurry to see a movie about a pubescent boy.

What’s more, “Ender’s Game” has just one week of clear sailing at the box office because “Thor: The Dark World,” the highly anticipated sequel to the box-office hit “Thor,” opens next weekend.

“Free Birds” is the first feature film release for Reel FX Animation Studios and Relativity Media, which partnered to finance the $55 million movie. The two companies are hoping to develop a partnership akin to the successful one between Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, developing a slate of lower-budgeted animated films.

The film follows two turkeys (voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson) who team up to try to stop the annual Thanksgiving slaughter of their kind. While there aren’t too many family films in the marketplace right now, “Free Birds” will have to overcome bad buzz if it is to become a hit: On Thursday, the film had notched a mere 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Last Vegas” stars Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas as a group of friends who head to Sin City for a bachelor’s party. The movie, which has been critically panned, was co-financed by distributor CBS Films and Good Universe for $28 million.

Not surprisingly, the film is appealing most to those between the age of 45 and 65 – a demographic that doesn’t typically rush out to see a new movie on its opening weekend. CBS is hopeful that the movie will play like “Hope Springs,” the 2012 comedy aimed at older adults that launched with $14.7 million and ultimately collected $63.5 million in the U.S. and Canada.

In limited release, Universal Pictures is launching its romantic drama “About Time” in 175 theaters. The film, written and directed by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), stars newcomer Domhnall Gleeson as a young man who learns he has the ability to travel back in time.

Universal, which co-financed the $12 million production with Elliott Management, will open the movie in a handful of theaters, hoping to build buzz before the picture launches nationwide next weekend. While the movie, which co-stars Rachel McAdams, has earned decent reviews, only a small number of older females so far appear interested in seeing it.

Meanwhile, Focus Features will launch its “Dallas Buyers Club,” a period AIDS drama starring Matthew McConaughey, in nine theaters. McConaughey plays the real-life Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texas electrician who, after being diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, began importing unapproved treatments that significantly prolonged his life and the lives of thousands of other patients.

The movie, which reaches theaters after a tortuous 20-year development period, has been stirring awards buzz for McConaughey and co-star Jared Leto since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.