On DiCaprio's side is writer-director Christopher Nolan, creator of bleak, brilliant blockbusters like 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight.' On Cage's side are producer Jerry Bruckheimer (famed for family-friendly, special-effects-driven Disney blockbusters like the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise) and director Jon Turteltaub (who, with Bruckheimer and Cage created the 'National Treasure' franchise). No one makes brawnier blockbusters than Bruckheimer, but this week, the smart money is betting on brains. This week's box office competition may look like a battle of star power between Leonardo DiCaprio (in 'Inception') and Nicolas Cage (in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'), but it's really a battle between their movies' creators.
On DiCaprio's side is writer-director Christopher Nolan, creator of bleak, brilliant blockbusters like 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight.' On Cage's side are producer Jerry Bruckheimer (famed for family-friendly, special-effects-driven Disney blockbusters like the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise) and director Jon Turteltaub (who, with Bruckheimer and Cage created the 'National Treasure' franchise). No one makes brawnier blockbusters than Bruckheimer, but this week, the smart money is betting on brains.
Nolan has long been a creator of grim, thought-provoking thrillers that, for all their intellect, don't stint on action. (Go rent 2001's 'Memento.' Now.) That M.O. proved so successful with 'The Dark Knight' that Warner Bros. pretty much gave him free rein on his next project, and the mind-bending sci-fi thriller 'Inception' is the result. Now, Nolan may not be a household name, and the film's two-hours-plus running time may limit daily showings, but the want-to-see factor for 'Inception' seems off the charts. Reviews have been rapturous, star DiCaprio is coming off the recent hit 'Shutter Island,' and the movie sounds thoroughly original (which, in a summer where audiences have generally spurned sequels and retreads, is a plus, for once). The film is opening on 3,792 screens, including about 200 that will add IMAX surcharges. Predictions range anywhere from $50 million to $75 million, but even at the low end, that would still be enough for a runaway box office victory.
'Sorcerer's Apprentice' may be the first (and last) summer blockbuster hopeful to be based on a Goethe poem, but its highbrow credentials end there. According to the decidedly mixed reviews, this is a movie made strictly by the Disney-Bruckheimer formula, a template that's already met with tepid audience response this summer with 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.' Cage (who hasn't had a nine-figure hit since 'National Treasure: Book of Secrets' three years ago) is reportedly at his loony best, and 'Apprentice' is opening wide on 3,504 screens, but the family audience already has two strong competitors in 'Despicable Me' and 'Toy Story 3.' The movie opened a couple days early to make some quick cash before 'Inception' steals its thunder, but Wednesday's debut brought in just $3.9 million. (That same day, 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,' out for 15 days already, took in a nearly identical $3.7 million, and 'Despicable Me' took in $7.2 million.) At that rate, 'Apprentice' will be lucky to bank $25 million this weekend and $30 million for its first five days.
Even then, it won't finish in second place. That slot will go to last week's champ, 'Despicable Me.' Given how well it's performed during the week, it's likely to lose only about 40 percent of last weekend's business and score another $32 million to $34 million.
'Eclipse' and 'Toy Story 3' are also still going strong. Even with a 50 percent drop, 'Eclipse' should still drain another $16 million or so from Twihards' wallets and land in fourth place. Meanwhile, 'Toy Story 3,' still holding onto a lot of 3D screens that might otherwise have gone to 'Despicable Me' or 'The Last Airbender,' should end up at No. 5 and decline by only a third, adding another $13 million to $15 million to what is already the year's biggest box office take.
Top five predictions:
1. 'Inception,' $70.3 million
2. 'Despicable Me,' $32.7 million
3. 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' $23.8 million
4. 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,' $16.3 million
5. 'Toy Story 3,' $14.0 million
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.