By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Warner Brothers' "Jack the Giant Slayer," the first big-budget, special effects-filled action movie of 2013, could be headed for less than huge sales at U.S. and Canadian box offices when it opens on March 1.
Industry tracking suggests the 3D movie based on the "Jack and the Beanstalk" fairy tale will debut with $27 million to $32 million in the domestic market during its first three days, according to sources who have seen the pre-release surveys.
The projections had climbed slightly from earlier in the week and could change closer to next Friday's opening after marketing heats up and press coverage intensifies.
"Jack the Giant Slayer" cost an estimated $189 million to make.
Two of last year's films with bigger budgets flopped, Walt Disney Co's $250 million Mars epic "John Carter" and the $209 million action movie "Battleship" from Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures, forcing the companies to acknowledge financial losses.
Distributor Warner Brothers, part of Time Warner Inc, believes "Jack the Giant Slayer" will attract a broad family audience and hopes for a North American (U.S. and Canadian) debut above $30 million, said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for the studio. He said he expects the studio will make a profit on the movie.
Warner Brothers surveys showed "tremendous support" for the movie among people age 15 and younger, and the film received positive reactions from theater owners, Fellman said, noting that family audiences haven't had a big-event film since December's "The Hobbit."
The first weekend in March also has proved a winner for family films, Fellman said. A year ago, animated hit "The Lorax" opened with a strong $70 million.
In addition, "the international side of the market will be huge," Fellman said.
A $30 million domestic opening for "Jack the Giant Slayer" would be "soft" for a big-budget film, said Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible, who compiles a database to project film performance. Warner Brothers could still make back the movie's budget, not including marketing costs, if the film opens domestically with at least $25 million, he said Wible.
Last year, Disney was forced to take a $200 million write-down for "John Carter." And the chief financial officer of Comcast, Michael J. Angelakis, acknowledged in a call with analysts that "Battleship" was "primarily" responsible for Universal's $83 million second-quarter loss.
"Jack the Giant Slayer" was produced by Warner Brothers and Legendary Entertainment, which partnered with Warner on hits including "The Dark Knight" trilogy and "The Hangover" series.
Warner Brothers last year delayed the release of "Jack the Giant Slayer," moving it from last summer to March 1.
The film stars Nicholas Hoult as a young farmer who ventures into the land of the giants to rescue a kidnapped princess.
The movie's trailer suggests the studio is aiming for "Lord of the Rings" fans, said Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, a website that tracks film comments on Facebook and Twitter.
So far, "it's just not connecting with fantasy fans," said Contrino, who estimates the film will take in about $23 million in the United States and Canada during its first three days.
The movie still has time to build more buzz and could enjoy a domestic sales boost if families turn out in force, Contrino said. Plus, "I can really see a movie like that clicking overseas," he said.
International ticket sales can run at least twice as high as U.S. and Canadian grosses for big action movies.
(Reporting By Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Ronald Grover and Leslie Adler)