Johnny Depp’s ‘Transcendence’ Leads New Releases Looking to Topple ‘Winter Soldier’

After nearly being topped by Rio 2 last week Captain America: The Winter Solider is now looking to become the third film of 2014 to three-peat at the box office. However a trio of big films are looking to make a mark, including one from a thriving genre.

Transcendence

(Credit: Warner Brothers)

The most high profile of the group is Transcendence from Warner Brothers (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) ), which stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Caster is working to create a machine that possesses both smarts and human emotion, but when he's gravely injured he inadvertently becomes a part of that machine when his intelligence is uploaded into the server.

It's a fascinating concept as it explores the ethical line between what can be done and what should be done in the name of science. If that hybrid discussion of morality and technology sounds familiar it should...the film's director is Oscar winner Wally Pfister, the longtime cinematographer of Oscar nominee Christopher Nolan. This is his Pfister's directorial debut and you can bet he included a number of hallmarks those familiar with Nolan's work will surely recognize.

Nolan is one of those rare directors with the gravitas to not only think big but execute big as well. Executives trust him and so do audiences, which is why you should be intrigued by Transcendence. Pfister is the one behind some of Nolan's most stunning sequences in movies like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. It's amazing it's taken this long for him to helm his own vision.

Analysis

The problem Warner Brothers will face is that the average person has no clue of the Pfister/Nolan connection and that could impact ticket sales. The trailer also doesn't do the film justice -- while it's slick and sharp, many may walk away not fully understanding the plot. Warner Brothers is hoping that the appeal of Depp (who has a massive fanbase) will bolster the movie.

The Oscar nominee's presence along with a strong ensemble -- including Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall as well as Dark Knight alums Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy -- could swing the tide in its favor. Yet early estimates only have the film earning between $20 million and $25 million, which is down from the $30 million analysts once thought was possible. Given the film's estimated $100 million production budget, it could be a long weekend for the studio.

Heaven Is for Real 

(Credit: Tri-Star)

Surprisingly the film's biggest competition may not even be a tentpole pic but a dark horse upstart. The resurgent spiritual genre has had a good year overall with Son of God, God's Not Dead, and Noah, and this latest one, Heaven Is for Real, is also expected to do big business.

From TriStar (a subsidiary of Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) ), the film is based on a true story and centers on a Nebraska pastor (Greg Kinnear) whose son has emergency surgery and afterward believes during that time he was in heaven. As more and more people doubt the boy's tale, he begins to recount things he couldn't possibly know otherwise, which is partially why the film (and the book it is based on) has gotten so much exposure.

Analysis

The studio played this incredibly smart. Executives positioned this to debut Easter weekend, but strategically placed it to drop on a Wednesday instead of a Friday to have a better chance against Rio 2Captain America, and Transcendence.

What's special about a film like this is that is plays to all kinds of audiences including the hard-to-reach religious audiences that only make trips to the theaters for spiritual movies (and make no mistake, that's a larger percentage of the population than many may think). With a opening day gross over $3.5 million, several projections have the film tracking as high as $20 million by the time Sunday rolls around.

A Haunted House 2

(Credit: Open Road)

Additionally, Open Road (a joint venture of  AMC  (NYSE: AMC  ) and Regal Cinemas  (NYSE: RGC  ) ) is going wide with A Haunted House 2, the sequel to last year's surprise hit. House 2 stars Marlon Wayans, who is no stranger to horror spoofs, having starred in the Scary Movie satire franchise. He has an ensemble of comedic talent joining him including Gabriel Iglesias, Jaime Pressly, Ashley Rickards, and Essence Atkins.

The movie is a send-up of all things horror. From Insidious to Paranormal Activity and all things in between, House 2 will pull no punches. In fact that's a big reason why the original did so well in 2013 and earned $40 million at the box office.

Analysis

Ranking as one of the studio's highest grossing films ever (it's a short list), a sequel was always in the cards, but this is a different set of circumstances. The first movie opened in the middle of winter and was up against two movies that under-performed. Now it's up against two blockbusters and two wild cards and the odds of it repeating it $18 million take are slim. Predictions have this opening at or below $10 million. Then again, the first one was made for $2.5 million and this one for $3 million so it won't be hard for House 2 to turn a profit.

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