Forecast: Action Heroines and Fighter Pilots Set to Wage War This Weekend
Even with plenty of competition, Underworld Awakening should still sink its teeth in to the top spot at the box office this weekend. The fourth entry in the action/horror franchise reaches 3,078 locations, while fellow newcomers Red Tails and Haywire open at 2,512 and 2,440 theaters, respectively. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close should attract a sizeable audience in 2,630 theaters, and The Artist will leverage plenty of awards buzz in just 662 theaters. With the plethora of new options, along with a bunch of solid holdovers, it's hard to imagine this weekend finishing below the same time frame last year ($102.7 million).

Along with Resident Evil, the Underworld franchise represents a consistent cash cow for Sony's Screen Gems division. All three of the movies have opened north of $20 million, and Kate Beckinsale's last time in the lead role (2006's Underworld: Evolution) currently holds series records with its $26.9 million opening and $62.3 million total. After a Beckinsale-free entry in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans ($20.8 million/$45.8 million), the series has gone back to its roots with Underworld Awakening.

When Resident Evil added 3D to the mix in its fourth installment (Resident Evil: Afterlife) it resulted in to the best opening ($26.7 million) and total ($60.1 million) for the franchise. By including 3D in Underworld Awakening, Sony is surely hoping for a similar outcome. The Resident Evil series had better continuity, though (Milla Jovovich is the star in all of the movies) and audiences have soured a bit on 3D in the 16 months since Afterlife. Also, aside from vague references to humans being the new enemy, Underworld Awakening's omnipresent marketing has struggled to clearly identify what's different about this entry. Sony is anticipating an opening in the low-$20 millions, which would fall in line with the previous movies.

After reportedly spending nearly two decades in development, George Lucas has finally brought Tuskegee Airmen movie Red Tails to the big screen. Lucas has been quick to point out that it's the first action flick with a predominantly African American cast, though it isn't the first World War II movie with a largely African American cast. In 2008, Miracle at St. Anna earned just $7.9 million; however, that was a long R-rated drama, while Red Tails fits more firmly in to the fighter pilot genre. Other recent fighter pilot movies include Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ($15.6 million opening), Stealth ($13.3 million opening) and James Franco dud Flyboys ($6 million debut). Considering its leading ticket sales right now on Fandango (27 percent), Red Tails should open at the high end of that range.

Steven Soderbergh's Haywire features mixed martial arts star Gina Carano as a superspy out for revenge after being betrayed by her agency. With a strong supporting cast including Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas, along with stellar January reviews (over 80 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), Haywire would seem to be a pretty appealing option this weekend. Unfortunately, it's oddly going up against Underworld Awakening, which also stars a butt-kicking female, and its arthouse action vibe hasn't really connected so far. Distributor Relativity Media is reporting that it covered most of the $23 million budget through foreign pre-sales and other ancillary revenue streams, and the studio is currently forecasting an $8 million weekend.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has made $680,958 in six theaters over the past three-and-a-half weeks, and its January expansion was originally planned to coincide with the heat of the awards season. Unfortunately, awards buzz has been nearly non-existent to this point, so the movie has to rely more on star power from Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Movies about September 11 have done solid business at the box office—World Trade Center had a fine $18.7 million opening, while United 93 debuted to $11.5 million with a cast made up entirely of unknowns. With a hefty marketing push that emphasizes that the movie "isn't about Sept. 11, but about every day after," and with the presence of Hanks and Bullock, Extremely Loud should open somewhere in between World Trade Center and United 93.

The Artist has earned $9.6 million through nearly two months in limited release, and has just won three Golden Globe awards including Best Picture (Comedy/Musical) and Best Actor (Comedy/Musical—Jean Dujardin). Add in all the raves the movie has been receiving over the past few months, and The Artist should be in line for a solid expansion. However, it's only playing at 662 locations, which won't be enough to push the movie in to the Top 10 this weekend.

Weekend Forecast (Jan. 20-22)

1. Underworld Awakening - $24.5 million

2. Red Tails - $15.9 million

3. Contraband - $14.4 million (-41%)

4. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - $12.5 million

5. Beauty and the Beast - $11.5 million (-35%)

6. Mission: Impossible 4 - $6 million (-49%)

7. Haywire - $5.9 million

The Artist - $3.4 million

Related Stories:

Last Weekend's Forecast: 'Beauty,' 'Contraband' Set to Lead MLK Weekend

Last Weekend Report: 'Contraband' Hijacks MLK Weekend