Book of Eli: First major challenger of Avatar

“Avatar” will likely stay atop the box office once again this weekend, but Denzel Washington is looking like its first big challenger.

Post-apocalyptic drama “The Book of Eli” is certain to be the biggest new movie over the upcoming Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend, grossing significantly more than literary adaptation “The Lovely Bones” and family film “The Spy Next Door.”

“Eli,” which was financed by Alcon Entertainment and is being distributed by Warner Bros., is on track to generate about $40 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada from Friday through Monday, according to several people who have seen pre-release moviegoer surveys.

Alcon spent $80 million to produce the movie, which stars Denzel Washington. That’s the biggest bet ever for small independent financier Alcon, which recently released the hit “The Blind Side.”

If “Book of Eli” opens as well as surveys indicate, it should be another box office score for Alcon, albeit not nearly on the scale of “The Blind Side,” which has reached $221 million in ticket sales to date.

While surveys indicate “Book of Eli” is generating interest primarily among men, “The Lovely Bones” is being targeted exclusively at females, particularly teens and young women. The adaptation of the best-selling book, directed by Peter Jackson, has performed poorly in limited release over the last month, collecting less than $500,000 over nearly five weeks.

Paramount, which inherited the movie from its former subsidiary DreamWorks, had hoped to expand the “Lovely Bones” to more theaters, but held back due to weak reviews and ticket sales. With only the narrow audience of teen and college-aged girls interested in the movie, studio executives who follow box office tracking say the movie could gross anywhere from $10 million to $20 million over the four-day weekend.

“The Lovely Bones” cost $70 million to produce, indicating that only a debut at the top end of that range, followed by positive word-of-mouth to keep ticket sales going, will make it a financial success.

SpyNextDoorIt will likely be in tight competition this weekend with Jackie Chan kids’ comedy “The Spy Next Door,” which was financed by Relativity Media and is being distributed by Lionsgate. The movie is generating decent interest among families and should collect around $15 million through Monday, a healthy performance given its low cost.

“Avatar,” meanwhile, is poised to collect nearly as much over the four-day weekend as it did last Friday through Sunday: $50.3 million. The James Cameron-directed 3-D blockbuster has already grossed $446 million domestically and $974 million overseas. This weekend it will become only the second picture, along with Cameron’s “Titanic,” to sell more than $1 billion of tickets outside the U.S.

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