Forecast: 'Prometheus,' 'Madagascar 3' Go Head-to-Head This Weekend
Midnight Update: Prometheus earned a very impressive $3.56 million from midnight showings at 1,368 theaters. That's seven times as high as Super 8's $500,000 on the same weekend last year, and also higher than Inception's $3 million midnight start in Summer 2010. It's also more than twice the recent midnight debuts of MIB 3 ($1.55 million) and Snow White and the Huntsman ($1.38 million). Both of those movies wound up with over $50 million for the weekend, and there's now a very good chance Prometheus ends up with at least that much.

Forecast: So far this Summer, it's always been pretty clear which movie would wind up taking the top spot at the box office each weekend. That's definitely not the case this weekend, though, as highly-anticipated sci-fi flick Prometheus squares off against the third installment in DreamWorks' Madagascar series. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is reaching 4,258 locations, which is the 11th-widest release ever (second-widest for an animated movie behind Shrek Forever After), while Prometheus is no slouch either at 3,394 venues (10th all-time for an R-rated movie). Both movies should earn over $40 million, though from there it's tough to call.

After endless speculation, it's now been made pretty clear to those keeping score—yes, Prometheus is functioning as a prequel to director Ridley Scott's Alien. That movie kicked off the larger Alien franchise when it earned $78.9 million, or the equivalent of $249.1 million adjusting for ticket price inflation, in Summer 1979. James Cameron continued the series with 1986's Aliens ($85.2 million, $181.8 million adjusted), and both Scott and Cameron's outings are widely considered to be classic entries in the sci-fi genre. Unfortunately, the franchise lost some of its luster with disappointing sequels Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection in the 1990s and then with mash-ups Alien Vs. Predator and Aliens Vs. Predator - Requiem in the last decade.

However, even with one recent commercial declaring that "Before Alien, there was Prometheus," the movie's status as a prequel has not been its main selling point. Instead, Prometheus has primarily been sold as an action-packed, thought-provoking original sci-fi movie. Previews mix stunning visuals with a palpable sense of dread (the repeating scream has been a centerpiece of the campaign), and feature one of the year's most intriguing taglines ("The Search for Our Beginning Could Lead To Our End").

Considering it's an "original" sci-fi movie from an acclaimed filmmaker, it calls to mind 2010's Inception and 2011's Super 8, and these comparisons should help moderate expectations surrounding Prometheus's opening a bit. Inception was director Christopher Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight and featured stunning imagery, big ideas, and a popular lead actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), but opened to just $62.8 million (a great number, but less than 40 percent of The Dark Knight's $158.4 million). Meanwhile, Super 8 debuted on the same weekend as Prometheus, and only earned $35.4 million initially. That movie's late-game marketing was fairly unremarkable, though, while Prometheus's push remains attention-grabbing, and with 3D premiums attached it could wind up close to Inception's figure.

The movie's R-rating does remain a potential hurdle: while The Matrix Reloaded and 300 opened to $91.8 million and $70.9 million, respectively, big openings for R-rated action movies are rare. In fact, only 11 R-rated movies have ever opened above $50 million. Still, this could a self-fulfilling prophesy: afraid that an R-rating is restrictive, the major studios mostly avoid pumping big money in to R-rated tentpoles.

Even if it doesn't become a huge hit domestically, Prometheus appears well-positioned for a strong foreign run. Through Tuesday, the movie had already earned $46.1 million from 15 markets, and it had great openings last weekend in Russia, the U.K. and France. It expands in to an additional 35 territories this weekend including Australia, South Korea and Taiwan.

While The Avengers and MIB 3 had some traction with family audiences, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is the first movie this Summer to exclusively target that crucial constituency. The franchise has so far provided some of DreamWorks Animation's biggest hits: the first Madagascar earned $193.6 million in 2005, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa netted $180 million in 2008. Neither are necessarily beloved by audiences—they both have decent 6.7 ratings on IMDb—but the characters are memorable enough and Paramount's marketing has done a fine job differentiating the third entry with their "Wig Out" campaign.

Unfortunately, animated sequels have been getting pummeled lately in comparison to their predecessors. Last year, well-reviewed Kung Fu Panda 2 opened 21 percent lower than it's well-regarded predecessor, while Happy Feet 2 debuted with only about half as much as the first Happy Feet. Of course, Cars 2 opened a tad higher than the first Cars, and it also added some European flavor, so there's a chance Madagascar 3 winds up close to the last movie's $63.1 million debut. Paramount is currently forecasting around $45 million for the weekend.

Madagascar 3 is also opening in 28 foreign markets this weekend, though most of those aren't in Europe thanks to the start of the Euro Cup. The movie opened to an incredible $3.7 million in Russia on Thursday, which is a new record for an animated release, and it also earned $1.9 million in both South Korea and France. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa wound up grossing $423.9 million overseas, and based on the recent trend for animated sequels the odds are that Madagascar 3 winds up higher.

Weekend Forecast: June 8-10

1. Prometheus - $55.5 million

2. Madagascar 3 - $53.8 million

3. Snow White - $28.7 million (-49%)

4. MIB 3 - $15.2 million (-46%)

5. The Avengers - $11.6 million (-43%)

Bar for Success

With the addition of 3D, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted really ought to get close to Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa's $63.1 million: $50 million seems like a fair benchmark. Regardless of how impressive the trailers are, R-rated sci-fi isn't really an easy sell, so anything over $40 million is a good start for Prometheus.

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