TUESDAY 4 PM UPDATE: MovieTickets.com says Twilight has sold more tickets on its site than Bolt, Quantum of Solace, Australia, and Milk combined, and still boasts over 345 upcoming sold out performances.

TUESDAY AM: This is shaping up as one of the big holiday weekends. No doubt the entire country may be in the mood for comedy, even a mediocre one, given the grim economic news. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that New Line/Warner Bros’ Four Christmases has “the best shot” to beat Summit Entertainment’s low-cost blockbuster Twilight this weekend, according to my box office gurus. They’re predicting the Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon PG-13 starrer should debut over $25M in its 3,200+ theaters for the 3-day weekend (which is far better than Vince’s last seasonal outing of $18.5M in the just plain awful Fred Claus) and $35M for the 5-day holiday. Twilight should experience a big but not unexpected 3-day weekend drop into the high $20sM. But Summit hopes for low $30sM (3-day weekend) and mid $40sM (for the 5-day holiday). But it also could finish neck-and-neck with Disney’s Bolt which, after a difficult debut last weekend when Twilight skewed younger than expected, could also end up in the high $20sM since Thanksgiving audiences love family pics so much. The release of 20th Century Fox’s sweeping epic Australia in 2,600 venues should find itself in a race for #4 with Bond holdover Quantum of Solace from MGM/Sony: both should have 3-day weekend totals in the high teens, and maybe $25M for the Oz pic’s 5-day holiday.

Is that a good, bad, or indifferent number for the Baz Luhrmann epic starring fellow Aussie countrymen Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for a media conglomerate begun Down Under? Depends on whether this is supposed to be a tentpole or a full-frills specialty film. It’s either Far And Away with Vegemite and thus Rupert’s Folly, or an artistic homage to a country and nationality that’s more about Aussie Pride than profit. (Although Fox keeps insisting that the film’s cost of $125M was tempered by 40% Australian government tax credits to bring Australia‘s negative cost down to $75M. But mention that to the moguls for rival studios, and they scoff…) In any case, it follows a summer and fall series of box office losers for the studio which keeps reminding everyone (as all majors do in down times) that this is a cyclical biz.

Insiders claim Rupert Murdoch had no involvement in the greenlight process even though his and Baz Lurhmann’s, and his and Nicole Kidman’s relationship, dates back some 15 years. “Baz has an overall deal that gives us a first look at stuff he wants to do. He had the idea for this movie some years ago, and we liked it.  He wrote a script – several drafts in fact, with co-writers, and we liked them too. Then we cast it. Then we made it. Pretty routine actually,” one source told me. Routine for most studios, but not for Fox — since this is a 1 1/2 quadrant movie tracking best with women over age 25 made by a studio whose mantra is making 3+ quadrant fare. And let’s not forget that Kidman is box office poison while Jackman has only made money playing Wolverine. “And no one ever heard of some kid Leo D or Kate W, and everyone already knows the Titanic sank… And how can you have Tom Hanks look ugly with a beard and only talk to a volleyball the whole time… And nobody but a few country western people in the South care about Johnny Cash… And on and on,” one Fox insider lectured me. ”Of course, we thought of tons of hurdles it would have to leap – the unique ones always present a million more reasons to say no than to say yes.  But if you believe in a project and believe in a filmmaker, then the thing to do is to try to responsibly protect the economic downside with partners and investments, which we have done, and, occasionally, reach for something fresh. In this case, we hope that by reaching back, we will actually be reaching forward.”

Or else Fox is reaching for Oscar, something the majors have been doing less and less in recent years. Until 2008 when several studios got behind other high-profile, low-grossing pics which obviously cost a bundle, like Paramount’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. But Australia also looks like Tom Rothman’s response to all the dissing that 20th Century Fox receives from inside Hollywood for making low-brow but high grossing fare. (Which also enables Fox Searchlight to stay open when so many other faux indies have been shut down or swallowed up.) Still I’m just too cynical to believe the studio spin that this pic was embraced for its old school, big spectacle, multi-genre storytelling. Or to accept straight-faced that, in the words of one insider, “Everyone here believed that we just hadn’t seen a film like this in a long time, and that with so many movies looking so much the same as every other film out there, a smart movie for adult audiences that was crowd pleasing and emotional and could ‘sweep audiences away’ as Hollywood used to do, would be unique in the market.” Puh-leeze, had this film not been Australian-centric, and Fox not owned by Murdoch’s News Corp, it would never have seen the light of day. And if shareholders don’t like that, then they shouldn’t be stupid enough to invest in a company where a mogul can pretty much do anything he wants to.

As for Baz, Fox’s explanation is that Luhrmann’s films “have never been sprinters, they have been marathons. It takes awhile for audiences to catch up to his movies, which is why they have such large multiples (e.g. 4.2x opening for Moulin Rouge and Romeo & Juliet),” another studio insider lobbied me. “Bottom line is this is an unconventional and original film unlike it’s opening competition (haute cuisine vs. fast food!) and this business needs more films like this.” Which explains why Fox is lowballing its predictions to only $13M for the 3-day weekend and $18M for the 5-day holiday. Besides believing the pic will have legs, Fox is counting on very strong international appeal because Baz’s films do double overseas what they do here.

Jason Statham is a reliable draw in the franchise Transporter 3 (now being released by Lionsgate after the first two were released by Fox) so with 2,500+ plays it should open at No. 6 with mid and possibly even high teens. DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, should start its month in release by grabbing #7 with low teens.

In terms of Oscar-touted pics, Focus Features opens Gus Van Sant’s Milk starring Best Actor nomination shoo-in Sean Penn this weekend at 35 theaters in 19 major series. Look for it to score the best per screen average

For more estimates listed by title, see box office results here...

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.