‘Iron Man 3’ Heads for Biggest Debut Since ‘Avengers’

“Iron Man 3,” the superhero movie from Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel division, looks set to jump-start the summer movie season with the biggest opening in a year that so far has proved disappointing to Hollywood.

“Iron Man 3” may take in more than $160 million in its U.S. debut this weekend, according to Phil Contrino, chief analyst for Boxoffice.com. That would be the biggest debut since “The Avengers,” also from Marvel, opened with $207.4 million a year ago to set a record.

A big opening for “Iron Man 3” would start Hollywood’s summer on a positive note after a 12 percent decline in domestic ticket sales this year. With potential blockbusters including “Star Trek” and “Man of Steel” lined up, the momentum could carry through to September, allowing studios and theaters to approach 2012’s record $10.8 billion box office.

“The first weekend is always important as something that gets the ball rolling,” said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst with Wedge Partners Corp. “And you’ve got good films coming up. That to me bodes well.”

“Iron Man 3” had already opened internationally and generated big numbers, which in turn has prompted U.S.-based analysts to raise their estimates for the domestic run. The movie has generated $361 million in global ticket sales, including $15.6 million from late night screenings at U.S. theaters yesterday, Disney said in an e-mailed statement today.

‘Avengers’ Sequel

“Moviegoers are reacting to this as a sequel to ‘The Avengers,’” Contrino, who was forecasting $151 million in mid-April, said in an interview. “There’s lots of promise.”

In the film, Robert Downey Jr. returns as the billionaire industrialist Tony Stark who fans embraced in two earlier “Iron Man” films and last year’s Marvel ensemble. Ticket sales may reach $400 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters, plus an additional $600 million internationally, according to researcher Box Office Mojo.

Out of 159 reviews compiled on aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, 126 were positive. “It’s a confidently tongue-in-cheek piece of blockbuster engineering, sweetly calibrated to Downey’s cavalier appeal,” CNN.com critic Tom Charity wrote.

“Iron Man 3” accounted for 93 percent of advance-ticket sales on Fandango.com yesterday, exceeding the share for “Iron Man 2,” the online vendor said in an e-mailed statement. That movie, made for an estimated $200 million, grossed $312.4 million domestically, part of a $624 million global haul, according to Box Office Mojo.

Summer Hits

Optimism about U.S. sales has buoyed cinema chain stocks. Imax Corp., owner of big-screen technology used by major theater chains, rose 1.2 percent to $27.82 at the close in New York. Regal Entertainment Group, the largest U.S. theater operator, slipped 0.1 percent to $18.72 after climbing 3.5 percent yesterday. Carmike Cinemas Inc., the fourth-largest operator, gained 0.5 percent to $17.35. Burbank, California-based Disney, which paid $4.2 billion for Marvel in 2009, advanced 1.4 percent to $64.80, an all-time high.

More than 20 films are projected to gross $100 million or more domestically this summer, up from 12 a year earlier, according to Bloomberg Industries research.

The lineup includes a new “Star Trek” from Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, “Man of Steel” and a third “Hangover” from Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros., and “The Wolverine,” part of the “X-Men” series from News Corp.’s Fox studio.

‘Good Films’

Sales fell during the first quarter, as films such as Warner Bros.’ “Jack the Giant Slayer” and Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” generated less in sales than the year-ago period which had “The Hunger Games,” “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” and surprises including “21 Jump Street” from Sony Corp.

“The moviegoing public has a great appetite for good movies,” said Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. “The only time there are gaps in the box office is when we just don’t have good films in the marketplace.”

Warner is making a bet this summer with “Man of Steel,” an attempt to reboot the Superman films with English actor Henry Cavill in the lead role. The picture is forecast to have U.S. sales of $325 million, according to Boxoffice.com.

The studio also will release a 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby,” based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The film opens on May 10, between “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

Big Budget

“Counter programming is important,” Fellman said. “There’s an audience out there that wants to see a sophisticated film.”

A successful opening day weekend for “Iron Man 3” would support Disney’s strategy under Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger. Disney has focused on big-budget movies since buying Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, releasing fewer films total.

“The Avengers,” released last May, helped lift Disney’s studio profit by 17 percent in fiscal 2012. This year, the company’s summer slate includes “Monsters University” and “The Lone Ranger” with Johnny Depp.

While bigger films typically command a larger share of ticket revenue, Disney sought an increase ahead of the “Iron Man 3” opening and exhibitors balked, creating a stalemate that threatened the film’s prospects.

An agreement last week ended the standoff. Disney and representatives from the three biggest chains, Regal, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Cinemark Holdings Inc., have declined to comment on the negotiations.

“We are extremely encouraged by what appears to be a promising lineup of high-profile films” this summer, Regal Chief Executive Officer Amy Miles said on an April 30 conference call.

The Knoxville, Tennessee-based exhibitor’s chief financial officer, David Ownby, said on the call that the company expects to pay more for films that attract crowds to its concession stands.

“Quite frankly, we’re happy to pay that to get more people into our theaters,” Ownby said. ‘The structure of those deals is still such that we pay for performance.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.