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Universal debut could be top dog at box office despite scandal

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Universal debut could be top dog at box office despite scandal

Every dog has its day, but it may not not be the day film executives had hoped for at the box office.

That is what Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures is learning the hard way after TMZ put a wet blanket on the release of "A Dog's Purpose." The Hollywood news and gossip platform on Jan. 18 leaked a video from the set of the film showing handlers forcing a German Shepherd to perform a stunt in churning water against its will. The video blew up, quickly garnering about as many views as the trailer, leading PETA and other animal rights activists to get involved.

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"A Dog's Purpose"
Source: Universal Pictures

It is difficult to say how much the controversy will affect ticket sales from the movie, but "A Dog's Purpose" is still leading forecasters' expectations for the weekend of Jan. 27, if by a narrow margin. BoxOffice.com puts the title at $17.5 million for its debut, while Variety forecasts the film to open in a range of $18 million to $22 million. Deadline Hollywood offers an $18 million expectation, but notes that some prognosticators are going as low as $13 million.

On the one hand, "A Dog's Purpose" is leading Fandango sales tracking, but elsewhere forecasts put the title well below pre-scandal expectations that went as high as $27 million.

Comparisons with other nonscandalized films about man's best friend bode generally well for "A Dog's Purpose." A list of five similar titles compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence -- including "Marley and Me," "My Dog Skip" and "Max" -- showed an average profit margin of 25.5% after an average opening gross of $17.0 million. Coupled with an average production cost of $26.5 million, those metrics line up nicely with the $22 million production of "A Dog's Purpose" and the forecasts for its release. But Universal will hope to avoid the fate of "Max" specifically, which cost $20.3 million and opened to just $12.2 million. That title left theaters in the red by 35.4%.

Besides the protests organized for its opening weekend, also working against "A Dog's Purpose" are the critical reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a "rotten" score of 32%, as of 3 p.m. ET Jan. 26.

The biggest competition for "A Dog's Purpose" is second-weekend thriller "Split." With a high volume of new midrange releases opening throughout January, forecasters have had trouble parsing out highly accurate expectations. "Split" was not an exception. Forecasters put the M. Night Shyamalan flick between the low- to mid-twenties range, but it opened to a whopping $40 million. That title will battle again for the top spot with expectations running at about $16.5 million, according to BoxOffice.com.

If forecasters again fall short on expectations, and "A Dog's Purpose" becomes too mired in controversy to drum up the numbers, "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter" could eke out a win for the weekend. The last installment of the franchise is expected to open at about $15.5 million, according to BoxOffice.com. Variety puts the video-game adaptation at $13 million to $14 million. Deadline splits the two, offering a range of $14 million to $15 million, pointing out that Sony Corp.'s Screen Gems studio is looking for an overseas play more than a domestic blockbuster. Before its domestic opening, the title will have well surpassed $35 million in Japan alone, according to Variety.

Comparisons for "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter" can be drawn linearly from previous Resident Evil titles, which have proven to be quite profitable for Sony. A list of five titles in the franchise compiled by S&P Global saw each film, going all the way back to the first 2002 installment, landing in double-digit profit margins, averaging to 21.6%, or $61.9 million in average net profits. However, each of those films opened higher than the projections for "The Final Chapter," with an average opening gross of $22.4 million. On the other hand, "The Final Chapter" carries a more modest production budget at about $40 million, compared to an average of $51.4 million for its comparisons.

Critical reviews are not in the title's favor, running at 40% "rotten" on Rotten Tomatoes, but reviews indicate that franchise fans will likely find the final installment satisfactory, even if it will not inspire any new interest.

Last among other new releases is "Gold" from The Weinstein Co., which is making a habit of releasing low-earning titles with high-powered stars behind them. "The Founder," which stars Michael Keaton as the founder of the McDonald's franchise restaurant, saw just $3.4 million in ticket sales over its debut weekend. Days later, Matthew McConaughey will portray a lucky prospector who finds gold in Indonesia while on vacation, and The Weinstein Co. again will likely find a debut in the low single-digits.

BoxOffice.com puts "Gold" at a $3.75 million opening. Variety and Deadline are a tad more bullish with forecast ranges of $4 million to $5 million.

One thing "Gold" does not have that "The Founder" had is good reviews. The McConaughey title was running at a measly 35% "rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to an 82% "Certified Fresh" rating for "The Founder."

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