The Material Girl Cashes In?

Madonna’s “The Next Best Thing” could turn out to be the best thing at the box office this weekend.

“It’s going to be a very lackluster weekend. Nothing’s going to be too great,” predicted one studio insider looking at tracking scores. The one possible exception: “Next Best Thing,” starring the M One and Rupert Everett as a straight woman and a gay man, respectively, who raise a child together. In recent studio tracking data, the comedy-drama was listed as the No. 1 movie of choice by 8 percent of potential moviegoers — up from 6 percent earlier in the week.

“It’s a very positive sign and means that, maybe, it can get into the $8-10 million territory,” the insider said. “If that’s the case, it should be No. 1.”

“The Next Best Thing’s” only real competition, the insider added, is likely to be last week’s No. 1 — “The Whole Nine Yards.”

“That held up pretty well last weekend,” he said. “Let’s say it holds up well again, and it could be around $7 million.”

One distribution executive had the Top Five stacked up this way: “The Next Best Thing” dueling “The Whole Nine Yards,” followed by the holdover likes of “Snow Day,” “Reindeer Games,” “Hanging Up” and the freshman comedy “Drowning Mona,” with Bette Midler.

“I think you’re going to have a whole bunch of movies that gross anywhere from $5-7 million,” the exec speculated.

Overall, the buzz on “The Next Best Thing” isn’t exactly buzzing, despite the superstar presence of Madonna.

“Don’t Madonna movies usually seem quiet?” asked one Hollywood insider. “She’s not [a big box-office movie draw], with the exception of ‘Evita,’ and they had to really work that movie carefully and slowly, with tons of marketing, to get it to $50 million. Take that out of the equation and, I think, the only film she’s made that really could be qualified as a success was her first one, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ [in 1985], which was a very little movie. Based on that, it probably turned a profit.

“I think Rupert Everett is the draw in ‘Next Best Thing.’ If you watch their TV spots, you’ll see that he’s emphasized much more than Madonna.”

The weekend’s other major debut is “What Planet Are You From?” the new battle-of-the-(alien)-sexes comedy starring Garry Shandling and Annette Bening and directed by Mike Nichols. Big names and big-release plans aside, the movie was only picked as the No. 1 movie of choice by 4 percent of would-be audiences.

“That’s the strangest thing,” says a studio executive. “… It’s a Mike Nichols movie, yet it’s perceived as a Garry Shandling movie, and he’s a TV star [who should attract audiences].”

The wild card looks to be “My Dog Skip.” After playing in just 21 theaters last weekend (after a January debut), Warner Bros. is moving the gentle family drama starring Kevin Bacon into a whopping 2,331 theaters.

“It could sneak in there,” one insider said. “If it gets any kind of critical mass, then it’s obviously going to cut into ‘Snow Day.’ Maybe ‘My Dog Skip’ is $5 million or $6 million or $7 million. I don’t know what it ends up being.”

The new urban comedy “3 Strikes” got a head start on the competition, opening Wednesday instead of Friday, but insiders say it won’t be a home run.

On the Oscar front, insiders predict continuing box-office action for the two leading Best Picture nominees — Miramax’s “The Cider House Rules” and DreamWorks’ “American Beauty.”

Expected to fill out the lower rungs on this weekend’s chart: “Pitch Black,” “The Tigger Movie” and “Wonder Boys.”