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Thinking outside the box office: Pratt, Washington hope to herd unruly audiences

After a volatile summerand another forecast-defying week, observers are looking to the weekend ofSept. 23 to restore some normalcy to the domestic box office.

A week prior, "Blair Witch" and "BridgetJones's Baby," two nostalgic sequels from the turn of the millennium thatwere expected toperform solidly, both surprised to the downside. "Blair Witch," whichgarnered some optimism based on the recent success of spooky thrillers like "Don'tBreathe" and "Purge: Election Year," did not even crest the $10million mark when forecasts were calling for an opening as high as $23 million."Bridget Jones's Baby" similarly defied expectations of an opening inthe mid-teens to collect just $8.6 million.

Source: Warner Bros.

"The box office is not broken," oneindustry executive told DeadlineHollywood, reflecting on the recent unpredictability of certain films.

Forecasters attempting to divine studios' prospects for theweekend of Sept. 23 will at least have some sturdy Hollywood pegs in the formof stars Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington on which to hang their expectations.Pratt's ability to ratchet up the boxoffice was proven in "Jurassic World" and "Guardians of theGalaxy," while Washington's legacy of solid returns stretches back deepinto the 1980s.

The two actors will strap on their holsters in a ColumbiaPictures remake of the 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven," whichitself was a retelling of the Eastern classic "Seven Samurai." Thefilm is tracking solidly, with Fandango reporting favorable presale trends. Varietyis looking for a $35 million weekend. BoxOffice.comcomes in decidedly bullish with a $51 million forecast. Deadline Hollywooddelivers a forecast range of $30 million to $35 million, but it adds that ifthe film can break out of its middling RottenTomatoes score of 61% (as of 4:30 p.m. ET, Sept. 22), it could see anopening in the $40 million range.

Comparisons for contemporary westerns are decidedly mixed.The moody 2010 tale of a cowboy loner "True Grit" managed $24.8million during its opening weekend, and it left theaters on a 34.8% profitmargin after production costs of $38.8 million. "The Magnificent Seven"will have a tougher row to hoe as it carries a $90 million budget to theaters.

Closer to "The Magnificent Seven" on budget, debutforecasts and its cross-demographic appeal, "Django Unchained" openedto $30.1 million and left theaters with an 18.7% margin on a $102.4 millionbudget. On the other hand, films like "3:10 to Yuma" and fellownumerically titled western "The Hateful Eight" tanked, postingopenings in the mid-teens and leaving with negative margins around the 10%mark.

Balancing the violence and high-concept themes of "TheMagnificent Seven," Warner Bros. will debut the animated movie "Storks"about a bird-run delivery service that gets caught up in the human babybusiness. The studio is hoping for a similar audience slant toward animatedfamily titles in the second half of September that sent "Hotel Transylvania2" skyrocketing this time last year. That trend is so developed by nowthat Deadline reported: "Family moviegoers have come to expect a solidanimated film during the third weekend of September."

Forecasts for "Storks" seem to take that intoaccount. Deadline is looking for a release in the upper $20 million to lower $30million range. Variety concurs,pegging its estimate at $32 million. comes in bullish again witha $36.5 million forecast.

Critics are not necessarily pummeling "Storks,"but they aren't enthusing over it like other recent animated flicks fromKingdom Animalia such as "The Secret Life of Pets," "FindingDory" and "Zootopia." The debut title was running at amarginally "rotten"score of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Comparisons to other Warner Bros. animated films run thegamut of success, with "Happy Feet" and "The Lego Movie"delivering margins of 45.3% and 51.0%, respectively, and titles like "Legendof the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," "Happy Feet Two" and "TheAnt Bully" going into the red by as much as 67.1% in the latter's case.

But on average, a list of five Warner Bros. animatedcomparisons shows an average profit margin of 26.7% on an average openingweekend of $31.3 million, a result "Storks" would be happy to achieve.

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