Will “Harbor” break records?

Though Disney chairman Michael Eisner prevented Pearl Harbor from having a hefty, oversized, dinosaur-big budget, there’s nothing to stop the World War II epic from breaking The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s opening weekend box office record.

The Jurassic Park sequel holds the record for an opening weekend, earning $90.2 million upon its 1997 release.

The $135 million Pearl Harbor uses the Japanese raid of the naval base mainly as a backdrop, as most of the film centers on two friends (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) who fall for the same woman (Kate Beckinsale). The three-hour film promises action for the guys and a love story for the girls.

Pearl Harbor opens nationwide on Friday, the only movie to do so this Memorial Day weekend. It will open on more than 3,200 screens–final figures won’t be available until Friday–and will probably equal if not exceed the colossal 3,587 screens that Shrek opened on last weekend, estimates Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, the oldest full service film industry statistical research firm in the business.

Shrek opened on the second-most screens ever, just behind the 3,653 screens that Mission: Impossible 2 notched last summer. Shrek pulled in an eye-opening $42.1 million in its debut weekend. That pales in comparison, however, to the standard that the pre-summer release The Mummy Returns set. The Mummy Returns opened with $68.1 million, and has pulled in $149 million since its May 4 release. Its opening weekend ranks as the second best, behind The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Many experts laud Pearl Harbor‘s prospect for a $100 million debut.

“If any film has a chance, it’s Pearl Harbor,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s a tall order, but Pearl Harbor will be opening on many screens at many times. If anything can surpass The Lost World, it sounds like it would be Pearl. But it’s a very tall order.”

“It is a movie for almost all ages, and certainly for boys and girls alike. I can’t imagine Pearl Harbor not doing [much better than last year’s] Gladiator,” said Christopher Wehner, editor of Screenwriters Utopia, who has read a final draft of the screenplay.

Gladiator snared almost $40 million in its first weekend.

Brian Callaghan, spokesman for the General Cinema movie chain, agrees.

“I think it has a realistic chance,” Callaghan said. “This isn’t just getting a teen audience; you’ll have sellout audiences of adults on Friday afternoons. And we’re showing the movie in our largest auditoriums.”

Callaghan also reports that ticket presales have been brisk.

“Yesterday [Tuesday] alone we picked up double the number that sold over the weekend,” he said. “And we expect that pace to pick up as people decide their plans for this weekend.”

The Mouse House is playing down expectations of a $100 million opening weekend.

“What is the highest-grossing movie ever to open Memorial Day weekend?,” said Peter Schneider, chief of Disney Studios. “The Lost World. It did $90 million. And it was a sequel [released on] a four-day [weekend]. What’s the next highest-grossing movie on this particular weekend and second-highest grossing four-day weekend [ever]? Mission: Impossible 2–$71 million. So what is the highest-grossing original movie on Memorial Day weekend? Mission: Impossible–$54 million. So my sights are, if I can get better than $54 million I’m gonna be thrilled, because we’ve only got three shows a day. [The Mummy Returns] has six shows a day. I’ll be thrilled if it does between $45 and $55 million.

“Now, if we do more, I’ll be thrilled. Mummy‘s an exception. Mummy is one of those things that happens. There was no competition in the marketplace; nobody else was doing business. [For us,] Mummy will be playing, Shrek will be playing …”

Originally set for a $200 million-plus budget, Pearl Harbor still cost more than $135 million to make. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Michael Bay and star Ben Affleck agreed to cut their own fees to keep the costs down.

With a high production cost comes high expectations. Add to that the pressure of opening the summer season. The industry generally tallies 40 percent of the annual ticket-sales gross between Memorial and Labor days, a period of 92 days. This means that Disney, and all of Hollywood, is banking on Pearl Harbor to succeed.

The lack of new competition opening against Pearl Harbor is understandable. The real risk behind making summer movies is the cost of launching them in an overcrowded market. In 2000, the average cost for prints and advertising was $26 million per movie. That figure can easily jump to $60 million for a summer blockbuster.

The fact that high-profile summer movies can make or break a studio regime only adds to the economic angst. When Last Action Hero fizzled in 1993, it was only a matter of time before Columbia’s then-chairman Mark Canton was sent packing. In 1998, dead-in-the-water movies (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) marked the beginning of the end for Universal Pictures chairman Casey Silver. And, recently, New Line Cinema ousted Michael De Luca for a string of flops culminating with last fall’s Little Nicky.

So the industry, and Wall Street, will watch with bated breath when Pearl Harbor opens Friday.

Disney’s stock price has jumped 5 percent since Friday. A number of venerable brokerages, including Salomon Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley, have upgraded their ratings of Disney on a bullish vision of Pearl Harbor‘s performance.

Eisner, however, opined on CNBC that Disney’s too diversified a company for one film to hold such sway on the stock.

Go to Box Office section for recent weekend movie analysis.