Tropic Thunder

Merie Weismiller W, Dreamworks Pictures

This was supposed to be the weekend The Dark Knight loosened its Bat-grip in the box office.

But the movie math was being rethought after Tropic Thunder, the presumptive and still-potential No. 1 weekend movie, opened with a relatively quiet $6.5 million Wednesday, per Exhibitor Relations-compiled final figures.

"I think it's not going to be as big as people thought," Exhibitor Relations box-office analyst Chad Hartigan said today of the Ben Stiller-directed comedy.

Based on its opening-day gross—about half what fellow R-rated comedy Pineapple Express bowed with a week ago Wednesday—Hartigan called for Tropic Thunder's Friday-Sunday gross to top out in the "high teens," a figure more befitting a springtime horror movie, rather than a big-budget, all-star summer comedy featuring Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr., not to mention a cameoing Tom Cruise.

Hartigan theorized that a number of factors, including a marketing campaign that, in his eyes, sold the movie more as a war movie than a send-up of actors in a war zone, could have been responsible for the subpar debut. He didn't blame the boycott called for by the chairman of the Special Olympics and other disabilities groups upset by the movie's repeated use of the word "retard" to diss of Stiller's character.

"If anything, it's giving it more publicity," Hartigan said of the boycott.

Indeed, an online poll conducted by the ticket-service Fandango found 67 percent of respondents said they were "more interested" in seeing the movie since hearing about the boycott. (Fandango and E! Online are both owned by Comcast.)

To Hartigan, Tropic Thunder's lackluster Wednesday could be attributed to something as simple, and, from a studio's perspective, chilling, as audiences not realizing the movie's opening day had been pushed up.

"There are some billboards still around town [in Los Angeles] that list its opening day as Friday," Hartigan said.

Still, a smaller-than-expected Tropic Thunder could be big enough to topple The Dark Knight, which has ruled the box office for four straight weekends.

Box Office Guru's Gitesh Pandya saw Tropic Thunder grossing, on the low end, in the low $20 millions, a la Pineapple Express, a much more modestly budgeted comedy, which took in $23.2 million last Friday-Sunday.

In Pandya's rankings, Tropic Thunder takes No. 1, while Dark Knight scores another $17 million or so—and finishes third.

Pandya's potential second-place finisher? The movie that Hartigan calls the weekend's wild card: Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

"You can't underestimate Star Wars," said Hartigan. "…Even though everyone know it's a glorified TV pilot."

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated series, debuts on Cartoon Network later this fall.

As for this weekend, the big-screen cartoon could take in $9-10 million, per Hartigan, or maybe as much as $19 million, per Pandya.

No matter where it places, The Dark Knight will still be the weekend's big winner. As of Wednesday, its overall domestic take stood at $451.9 million. By Saturday or Sunday, that figure should exceed $461 million. And when that happens, The Dark Knight will pass the original Star Wars for second place on the list of all-time box-office champs.

So much for that loosened Bat-grip.

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