Box Office Preview: 'Rio 2' Set to Battle 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' for No. 1

Relativity, Disney, Viacom, Lions Gate, DreamWorks, and News Corp battle for box office supremacy

Blue Sky Studios' hopes Rio 2 can beat Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend: Credit: News Corp, Disney

Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier may have gone unchallenged in its record-breaking $95 million U.S. debut, but this weekend the box office might sing to a different tune.

With the nearly 4,000-theater launch of its animated, music-filled adventure in Rio 2, News Corp.'s (NASDAQ: NWS  ) 20th Century Fox subsidiary Blue Sky Studios hopes it has another big hit on its hands. After all, Blue Sky Studios' first effort with Rio opened to a solid $39 million this time three years ago, and ultimately grossed $484.6 million in worldwide ticket sales -- more than enough to recoup News Corp.'s $90 million outlay and spur the creation of this weekend's sequel. 

What's more, DreamWorks Animation's  (NASDAQ: DWA  )  Mr. Peabody & Sherman stands as the most recent competing animated film still in theaters. But DreamWork's latest is already entering its sixth weekend and collected just $5.1 million for seventh place last weekend. As a result, there should be plenty of pent-up demand from movie-goers looking for family-friendly entertainment. 

As of right now, preliminary ticket sales have Rio 2 tracking somewhere in the $40 million to $42 million range over the next three days.  This is great for News Corp., which only slightly upped the ante this time spending "just" $103 million on Rio 2. That might sound like a lot, but Disney and DreamWorks spent $170 million and $145 million, respectively, to bring Frozen and Mr. Peabody & Sherman to life. At the same time, all of Rio 2's core voice talent was happy to return, including Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Leslie Mann, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, and Jermaine Clement. 

So where does that leave Disney and its Captain America sequel? If Winter Soldier experiences a similar ~58% second-week plunge as both Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 did last year, that means it should end up tacking on another $40 million this weekend. Of course, it's worth noting Winter Soldier has already grossed a mind-boggling $320.1 million worldwide, but we might have ourselves a darned close race for the top spot domestically just the same.

Don't forget the wild cards
This weekend also features the sub-3,000 theater rollouts of Relativity Media's super-creepy horror flick, Oculus, and Lions Gate's (NYSE: LGF  ) Kevin Costner-infused sports drama Draft Day. While neither should pose a significant threat to Winter Soldier or Rio 2, I fully expect both to be successful in their own rights.

Relativity, Disney, Viacom, Lions Gate, DreamWorks, and News Corp battle for box office supremacy

Oculus debuts this weekend: Credit: Relativity Media

Relativity only spent $5 million on Oculus, putting it in the same league as other low-risk, high-reward horror franchises like Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA  ) Paramount's last four $5 million Paranormal Activity films. In fact, despite receiving a disappointing "C-" CinemaScore from polled audiences, this year's Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones has already proven a huge success after opening to a modest $18.3 million in January, then racking up $86.4 million in global ticket sales for Viacom over the past seven weekends. If Oculus can perform even half as well, Relativity Media has reason to rejoice.

Draft Day is slightly different in that Lions Gate hasn't provided an official production budget, but I find it hard to imagine director Ivan Reitman required significantly more than the $25 million with which he helmed 2011's No Strings Attached. If that's the case, I suspect Lions Gate will also be happy with most early estimates calling for Draft Day's estimated first weekend gross in the low-to-mid teens.

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