WEDNESDAY PM: Big movies, big stars, big holiday weekend, and, if the weather cooperates, there’s a certainty of big box office grosses. But there’s still more snow and ice storms forecast for up and down North America threatening to lower yet another weekend’s movie ticket take overall and prevent 2008 from having a banner year. Here are Christmas weekend predictions:

#1. First up, Disney’s Bedtime Stories starring Adam Sandler, kids, gumballs… C’mon, this is gonna be huge, and it’s got the widest release of all five pics. Who cares about the awful reviews? The pic looks like fun for kids and their parents, and it’s only 99 minutes long. The very strong family tracking looks a lot like this holiday season’s Night At The Museum, which also starred a funnyman to draw in general audience (Ben Stiller), had stinky reviews, but made $575M around the world. Playing in 3,681 theaters, Bedtime Stories should open to $40+M over the 4-day holiday, according to my box office gurus.

#2. Right behind it is 20th Century Fox’s heavily marketed Marley And Me based on the bestselling book. All my movie analysts don’t dare bet against a dog movie. (Remember how well another PG pic about a pooch, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, debuted earlier this year? How about $29.3M on its opening 3-day weekend, all for the cost of canine food.) This is undoubtedly Owen Wilson’s comeback pic. The movie is tracking big with females of all ages, and well with (Old Yeller-fixated?) older males. It’ll do well on Friday’s date night as long as girlfriends remembers to stuff Kleenex in their purses, and their boyfriends aren’t too embarrassed to walk out of the theater crying. Seriously, are audiences adequately prepared for the plot denouement? The marketing campaign doesn’t dare hint at it. Running into 3,480 venues, it’s got Christmas Day’s second widest release. My box office gurus expect a $30M opening for the holiday long weekend. I think it could go higher and maybe beat Bedtime Stories for No. 1.

#3. Receiving good reviews and great Oscar buzz and a gargantuan awards campaign, Paramount’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is certainly going to be sampled. Still, there’s some skepticism about the box office potential of what is now being referred to as “Hollywood’s most expensive art flick”. Not to mention that it’s being marketed to within an inch of its megaplex life for a hefty price. (Then again, studio boss Brad Grey feels a special obligation to try to win an Oscar for his former management client Brad Pitt and their once joint production company Plan B.) All those new Golden Globe nominations will surely help market the film which is tracking strongest with females over age 16 and males over age 25. But the PG-13 pic’s hefty 2 hour, 47 minute running time will limit its box office gross. Still the studio is hoping that the strong word of mouth could push Benjamin Button to a great multiple. (One Paramount exec tells me the pic could play like The Pursuit Of Happyness which started at $26M and end up with $162M domestic. But I say Brad Pitt simply isn’t the phenomenal box office draw that Will Smith is…) Playing in 2,988 dates, Benjamin Button should open to $25M, according to my box office gurus.

#4. It wasn’t too long ago that MGM/UA’s Valkyrie was a bad joke, what with Tom Cruise dressed in a German army uniform in a World War II movie, directed by Bryan Singer still living down his underperforming Superman Returns, with an ever-changing release date that finally settled on December 25th. (Because when I think Nazi’s, I think Christmas Day.) But a team of marketing experts – led by MGM/UA’s Michael Vollman and outside consultant Terry Press who reputedly spent $60M to do it — managed to turn things around. Although Hollywood analysts don’t see how this pic will earn out unless it’s a blockbuster overseas where Cruise is still considered a huge star. (Lions For Lambs did 3x its domestic take overseas.) Still, I could have sworn it was going to be stillborn domestically. Yet all of a sudden, Valkyrie is receiving decent reviews and tracking well with males aged 16+ and stealing away the guy audience that normally would see The Spirit. Is this still a referendum on Tom’s viability as a superstar? Yes and no. After all, his photo isn’t even featured on the movie poster. I once thought anyone who believed Valkyrie could open to more than $15M was nuts. Now my box office gurus agree with MGM predictions that the PG-13 pic, playing in 2,711 theaters, can do $25M for the Christmas long weekend. But I still suspect, despite the curiosity factor, it’ll be hard-pressed to beat $20M.

#5. My movie analysts don’t expect much life from Lionsgate’s The Spirit adapted from Will Eisner’s graphic novels despite a flashy marketing campaign meant to cultivate its Sin City visuals rather than its comic book content. “It’s tracking only with genre audiences. Lionsgate shouldn’t have tried to brave the Christmas competition,” one rival studio exec tells me. Opening in 2,500 plays, The Spirit isn’t expected to exceed low teens over the 4-day holiday.

As for the one-week holdovers, Warner Bros’ Yes Man could recover from last weekend’s disappointing box office due to disastrous winter storms enough to come in #5 among all the movies with $20M for the Christmas long weekend. Also affected weather-wise was Sony’s Seven Pounds which may come in #7 with a 4-day holiday total in the low teens. And Universal’s Tale Of Despereaux should come in #8 playing primarily to preschoolers for a $10M Christmas long weekend.

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