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'Spider-Man' to swing into slow box office as 'Mortal Engines' breaks down

On the weekend of Dec. 14, Columbia Pictures will take the webbing off an animated installment in the Spider-Man universe, "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."

Forecasters expect the title to play well against what looks like a big whiff from Universal Pictures with big-budget steampunk fantasy "Mortal Engines," which is forecast to come well behind Clint Eastwood drug-running drama "The Mule."

BoxOffice.com expects "Spider-Verse" to bound to $36 million. That splits a bullish $39 million projection from Variety and a more modest forecast of $30 million to $35 million from Deadline Hollywood.

SNL ImageSpider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Source: Columbia Pictures

Variety notes that the studio itself is projecting $30 million, but "early buzz" could boost the title well beyond that amount. The early buzz includes rave reviews, with Rotten Tomatoes catapulting the title to a "Certified Fresh" 98% rating, as of 10:00 a.m. ET, Dec. 14.

The new Spider-Man title follows a diverse, if animated, cast, that fights crime in a universe sustaining more than one arachnid superhero. At a $90 million budget, the film will need some staying power to tie down profits for the Sony Corp. studio, but some forecasters do not see that being a problem. BoxOffice.com's long-range figures put the title at a $140 million domestic run; the film will see a China debut Dec. 21.

Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, compares the film with other hot heroic animations such as "The Incredibles," "Big Hero 6" and "Megamind," as well as the most recent live-action Spider-Man title "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the highly stylized, anthropomorphic "heroes in a half-shell," "TMNT." Those titles on average almost doubled the opening forecasts for "Into the Spider-Verse," but against a much higher average production budget of $120.5 million. Those films enjoyed an easy ride into profitability with an average profit margin of 46.5%.

The widest budget-to-forecast spread from the weekend will come from "Mortal Engines," an apocalyptic dystopian fantasy romp from blockbuster director Peter Jackson. However, unlike Jackson's supernaturally profitable forays into fantasy with "Lord of the Rings," his newest effort could be comparatively mortal, indeed. BoxOffice.com is predicting a meager $9.6 million start. Deadline and Variety give it better chances, suggesting it could break well into the teens. Regardless, that would be a troubled bow for the $100 million-plus production.

Finding a comparison for "Mortal Engines" with a similarly dire outlay is difficult, but "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" may come close. That 2013 title opened to just $9.3 million against a $60.8 million budget and exited theaters deep in the red by $72.4 million, according to Kagan data.

Not helping the prospects for the Universal Pictures' film, "Mortal Engines" was running a dystopian 30% "rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes, as of 10:00 a.m. ET, Dec. 14.

AT&T Inc.'s Warner Bros. studio, meanwhile, will drop Clint Eastwood flick "The Mule," a tale of a man who's caught up in a cocaine-smuggling ring. BoxOffice.com is looking for a $17 million opening, echoed by more generalized forecast ranges from Deadline and Variety.

The studio did not disclose a budget for "The Mule," but if it falls in line with other modern Clint Eastwood flicks like "Gran Torino" and "Million Dollar Baby," it could carry its weight in profits. Those titles opened to $29.5 million and $12.3 million, respectively, against budgets around $25 million. Each exited theaters solidly in the black on margins above 35%.

"The Mule" was running a solid 64% "fresh" rating as of 10:00 a.m. ET, Dec. 14.

21st Century Fox Inc. will also re-release "Deadpool 2" under a more festive title "Once Upon a Deadpool," editing the film down from an R rating to a PG-13 rating.

In all, the stockings hanging over the box office will likely be lighter than prior holiday seasons when super-blockbusters from franchises such as "Star Wars" drove audiences, but after a strong full year 2018, forecasters still generally expect a record year, crossing the $11 billion mark in record time and potentially topping 2016's $11.38 billion record before Jan. 1.

SNL Image