Forecast: 'Interstellar,' 'Big Hero 6' to Achieve Liftoff This Weekend

The holiday movie season kicks off this weekend with a massive sci-fi showdown: Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and Disney Animation's Big Hero 6 each appear poised to open north of $50 million this weekend.

If each movie does clear that threshold, it will be only the fourth time in history that this has happened: there was WALL-E and Wanted in 2008, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Prometheus in 2012 and Monsters University and World War Z in 2013. In each of those cases, the animated movie came out on top, which may be an indication about what's to come this weekend.

After a two-day run in 249 theaters, Interstellar expands to around 3,500 locations on Friday. The sci-fi adventure finds Matthew McConaughey leading a team of NASA explorers (including Anne Hathaway) across the universe in search of a new home for mankind.

One of the movie's main selling points is the fact that it was directed by Christopher Nolan, who has managed to establish himself as one of the biggest behind-the-camera stars currently working in movies. Nolan's last three features (The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) combined to earn over $2.9 billion worldwide. The most impressive of those is Inception, a wholly original movie that took in $293 million at the domestic box office and over $825 million worldwide.

There are two main reasons why the Nolan brand is a big box office draw. First, he has a reputation for delivering quality movies: his previous eight movies all scored at least 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. More importantly, Nolan is known for making the type of immersive, large-scale movies that must be seen on a big screen. That's been a key component of Paramount's marketing for Interstellar: this isn't just a movie, it's an "experience" that you shouldn't wait to watch on your 40-inch television.

Along those same lines, Paramount and Nolan are urging moviegoers to see Interstellar in IMAX. Nolan shot around an hour of footage using IMAX's 65mm cameras, which allow for a more immersive image: previous movies that utilized this technology include Nolan's last two Batman movies, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Interstellar will be playing in 370 IMAX theaters domestically, which is the biggest ever IMAX release. Last November, Catching Fire opened to $12.6 million from 347 IMAX screens; a year earlier, Skyfall debuted to $12.5 million. With such a strong emphasis on the format, it's fair to expect Interstellar to wind up in the same range this weekend.

The big question, though, is how the movie will play among general moviegoers who aren't quite as enamored with Nolan and don't really know or care much about the IMAX experience. From this end, the marketing has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Advertisements do a solid job establishing stakes on a global and personal level: McConaughey's character seems equally interested in saving the human race and his family. Less impressive is the approach to selling the visuals: while there's some intriguing imagery here, it's not nearly as attention-grabbing as that in last year's Gravity or Nolan's Inception. To that end, the movie also seems to lack the kind of action that helped sell Inception.

It doesn't help that much of the publicity surrounding Interstellar has been focused on how scientifically accurate it is. While that's surely a selling point for someone, it's also serving to make the movie seem a bit like a homework assignment.

Interstellar could also be hurt by mixed reviews: as of Wednesday afternoon, it was at 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. If that number holds steady, it will make this the lowest-rated Nolan movie yet.

Still, a so-so final push doesn't really negate the fact that this is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Paramount is expecting $50-to-$55 million for the three-day weekend, though it wouldn't be surprising if it tipped over $60 million: Fandango is reporting that it's outselling Inception, Gravity and Prometheus.

Ahead of the weekend, Interstellar is playing for two days at 249 theaters: all of these theaters are showing the movie on film only (no digital projection). Paramount is estimating that the movie will earn at least $1.5 million on Wednesday, which will be enough for first place at the box office. From what we can tell, this will be the first time in over a decade that a movie took first place while in limited release (Chicago did it for three days in January 2003).

While Paramount is handling domestic distribution, Warner Bros. is releasing Interstellar overseas. The movie opens in most markets this weekend, though it doesn't reach China until next weekend. Inception scored $533 million overseas; a more realistic expectation is a total in line with last year's Gravity ($442 million).

Continued with a look at 'Big Hero 6,' along with official weekend predictions >>

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