Looks like the Red Planet will generate most of this weekend's box-office green. "Mission to Mars" should blast off in first place with about $25 million, according to studio-tracking studies that see everything else in the marketplace flying in a much lower orbit.
The most recent tracking scores for "Mission," starring Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins as astronauts on a Mars-bound expedition, show the film being pegged as the No. 1 flick of choice by 17 percent of potential audiences.
"They're certainly $20 million-plus, maybe even $25 million-plus," says one distribution executive, predicting substantial ticket sales.
So, who wants to go to "Mars?"
"It's a young male demographic," the exec points out. "That audience is impulse driven. They'll be out there Friday night and on the weekend."
The weekend's only other wide opening, the Roman Polanski-directed horror-thriller "The Ninth Gate," with Johnny Depp, seems doomed to be a distant second on the chart. As of today, only 6 percent to 8 percent of moviegoers was listing it as their must-movie movie of the weekend, according to tracking scores.
"I think a lot of their audience is [young males who are also] the 'Mission to Mars' audience," a studio executive says. "So I would put them in the high single digits -- $7-8 million."
Another indication "The Ninth Gate" is in for a rough ride? A Page Six gossip item in the New York Post, which noted that at a recent critics screening, "The crowd burst out into laughter for the [film's] last 15 minutes."
The rest of the Top Five could stack up this way, according to the studio insider: the hit man comedy (and defending box-office champ) "The Whole Nine Yards" (perhaps piling up as much as $5-5.5 million); "My Dog Skip" ($4 mil); and "Drowning Mona" and Madonna's "The Next Best Thing" coming in with about $3.5 mil each.
Holdovers expected to fill out the lower rungs on the weekend's charts: "Pitch Black," "Snow Day," "Reindeer Games," and Best Picture hopefuls "American Beauty" and "The Cider House Rules."