‘Hanging Up’ Up to No. 1?

Hollywood is anticipating an “Up” weekend at the holiday box office with the Diane Keaton-directed chick flick “Hanging Up” arriving with tracking scores that make it the front-runner to claim the No. 1 spot.

Cast of “Hanging Up”s The Presidents Day weekend — final numbers will reflect Friday through Monday business — also will see the expansion of several high-profile Best Picture Oscar hopefuls, as well as the bow of the Bruce Willis-led “The Whole Nine Yards,” the sci-fi thriller “Pitch Black” and the new-style “Wall Street” “Boiler Room.” And what of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach”? More on that (not-so-promising) news later.

Right now, “Hanging Up” is looking like the one to beat.

“An older audience, especially adult women, is really hungry for something to go see at this point,” one distribution executive said. “I think that’s reflected in the tracking. It’s a 15 percent first choice, which means this movie for the four days is certainly in the high teens [million-dollarwise], at least. I think that makes it No. 1 because you’ll see ‘Scream [3]’ for the four days at about $14-15 million, about where it was last weekend for three days.”

Tracking numbers reflect which movies people who are polled report they plan on seeing first.

“I think you’ve got ‘Hanging Up’ leading the pack and then ‘Scream 3,'” a studio executive said. “Then you’ve got three movies in the low teens — — “‘Snow Day,’ ‘The Beach’ and ‘The Whole Nine Yards.’ Probably ‘Pitch Black’ and ‘Boiler Room’ are not in the Top Five. They should be in the $8-10 million range.”

The road to No. 1, meanwhile, is not without potential pitfalls for “Hanging Up.” In its frequently aired TV commercials, Columbia Pictures makes the film appear to be more of a light-hearted comedy — something akin to “The First Wives Club.” But the film — starring Meg Ryan, Lisa Kudrow and Keaton (doing double duty as actress-director) — grows serious as it shows how three adult sisters deal with an aging, hospitalized, near-death father (Walter Matthau). Word of mouth that “Hanging Up” isn’t really a “Wives Club”-style comedy could hurt it down the line, but for now the ad campaign appears likely to help the movie — debuting at 2,618 theaters — to a big opening.

The forecast for the other new major releases is murkier.

“‘Whole Nine Yards’ is puzzling to me,” one studio executive said. “… I liked the picture, but it’s certainly not a great picture by any means. I thought it was like ‘Analyze This’ but maybe not as funny. A pleasant movie, again, for grownups. But the tracking is not real strong. [It] puts it in the $10 million to low teens for the weekend. And that certainly puts it behind ‘Scream 3.'”

Late in the week, “Whole Nine Yards,” opening at about 2,910 theaters, was showing an overall 7 percent first-choice tracking score. Reflecting on the tracking numbers, another insider observed, “I thought this would be better than this, but it sure isn’t.”

Warner Bros., the studio behind “Whole Nine Yards,” maintains that last Saturday it hosted very successful sneak previews of the flick, about a hit man (Willis) in the suburbs. At the roughly 400 (of 800 overall) theaters where the studio did research, Warners said the film was rated good-to-excellent by 98 percent of those polled.

Also coming into the marketplace is “Pitch Black,” which studio insiders report has an overall first-choice tracking score of 11 percent. Among males, the score went up to 17 percent. Directed by David Twohy, “Pitch Black,” about a group of marooned space travelers, stars Vin Diesel. It opens at 1,600-plus theaters.

Distribution sources said the overall first-choice tracking score for “Boiler Room” was 7 percent. “It’s 10 percent [first choice among] males, 3 percent [among] females,” an insider said. Written and directed by newcomer Ben Younger, the drama stars Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Affleck, Nia Long and “Pitch Black’s” Diesel. It opens at about 1,200 theaters.

Among the holdovers, DiCaprio’s “The Beach” ” is expected to see some heavy erosion in its second weekend as word of mouth spreads that its teen-idol lead isn’t playing the same type of romantic hero he did in “Titanic.”

“I’m guessing ‘Beach’ takes a big hit,” an insider predicted.

As it stands, “The Beach” — last week’s No. 2 — looks like it could wind up placing fourth after “Hanging Up,” “Scream 3” and “Whole Nine Yards.”

Both of last weekend’s new family films — “Snow Day” and “The Tigger Movie” — should benefit from schools being closed Monday for Presidents Day. The PG-rated family comedy “Snow Day” opened in third place last weekend to $14.3 million at 2,664 theaters. The animated “Tigger” debuted in fourth place to $9.4 million at 2,723 theaters.

On the Oscar front, DreamWorks’ “American Beauty,” which leads the pack with eight overall nominations, including one for Best Picture, will widen from seven theaters to about 750 theaters. “The Insider,” which has seven nominations, will expand from 36 theaters to about 125 theaters and will widen again Feb. 25 to a total of 500 to 700 theaters.

“The Cider House Rules,” also with seven nominations, will remain at about 800 theaters. It will expand Feb. 25 to about 1,500 theaters. “The Sixth Sense,” with six nominations, will expand from 831 theaters to 860 to 880 theaters. And “The Green Mile,” with four nominations, will continue to play at about 2,000 theaters.

“If you look back, the nominated films, while they get a big jump, seldom crack the Top Five,” one distribution executive observed. “I don’t know what ‘American Beauty’ does. I’m sure it’s a substantial bump.”

“The Green Mile,” with an overall take of nearly $125 million through last weekend, is expected to crack the Top 10 again, as are the mostly Oscar-ignored “The Hurricane” and the family comedy “Stuart Little.”