August Movie Predictor

As a box office month, there are two distinct parts of August. The first half can often be a continuation of a strong July, with a number of well-performing and high profile films. These won’t usually be on par with the releases in the first half of the season, but on occasion there will be some particular standouts. The Rush Hour series, Talledega Nights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Signs, and The Sixth Sense are all films that have done exemplary business after an early August start.

The latter half of the month is very much a summer dumping ground. Films that the studios feel don’t have enough presence or power to hang it in the rest of the season will get shuffled off to the final couple of weeks. (Films that aren’t deemed good enough for the final weeks of summer will get moved to early September, which is traditionally even worse.)

This feast or famine dichotomy is only broken in a few cases. Only five of the top thirty largest opening weekends in August have come after the second weekend. One of those came from last year’s Halloween, over the Labor Day weekend. Two others were late summer surprises from Judd Apatow – Superbad and The 40 Year Old Virgin.

So with the stage set, we look forward to 2008. Will it follow the pattern?

Weekend of August 1

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

In the 19 years since the last time Indiana Jones took to fighting his way through the nooks and crannies of human history, there have been a few attempts to capitalize upon the archeological adventure genre. Perhaps the earliest came in 1994 with Stargate, which started off Roland Emmerich’s directing career and also spun off a popular TV series. However, in that case the archeological elements played second fiddle to the sci-fi elements. More recently there have been the National Treasure films. Despite the implausibility of the plots and very America-centric themes, they’ve managed to capture the fun adventure of the Indy films.

In between the two were The Mummy films, which were very much in the theme of Indiana Jones, both with the time period and sometimes bumbling heroics. However, after the second film in 2001, attempts to get a stumbled time and again. 2002 saw a spin-off Scorpion King movie, which started The Rock’s film career.

Now, after seven years, we get the third film in the series. On one hand, it looks like a fun film, with Brendan Fraser filling his old shoes at least as well as before, Jet Li providing the titular Dragon Emperor, and Maria Bello taking over for Rachel Weisz. It’s well situated to be a big late summer movie, as it comes two weeks after The Dark Knight and doesn’t see another action/adventure contender for another two weeks. And Stephen Sommers (unseen behind the camera since Van Helsing) has passed on the director’s chair in favor of Rob Cohen (unseen since Stealth)–oh, wait, was I looking for positives?

Well, for all his faults, Cohen does a good action sequence, at least. Hopefully he won’t lose on the humor of the series.

The downside, though? It’s been seven years! And while they sold well, The Mummy films aren’t something that stands as a high point in cinematic history. It’s similar in tone, but it isn’t Indiana Jones, and I’m not sure if anyone was clamoring for another film (well, besides Brendan Fraser). Witness how well Rush Hour 3 did last year, and that was after a six year gap.

As a possible offset against that, they’re not billing it as a specific sequel. It’s got The Mummy name, but I wonder if they could just have gone with The Dragon Emperor instead.

Opening: $40m, Final: $130m

The Rocker

One of the strongest staples of the comedy genre is the man who refuses to grow up. A number of comedy giants such as Steve Martin or John Belushi can trace their movie roots to this. These characters will fall into a few somewhat distinct characters, whether it’s the perennial frat-boy (think Vince Vaughn), the Peter Pan (Robin Williams), or the idiot man-child . The last has been quite popular of late, with Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, and at least one character in any given Judd Apatow movie try to fill the shoes vacated by Jim Carrey and to a lesser Adam Sandler, who’s been drifting away from this role for the past few years.

The Rocker doesn’t start any of these people, but at first glance it seems like it could be an Apatow production. It’s got the mixture of slightly heartwarming family touches along with observing the humor of maturing and growing up. And it’s got one of Steve Carell’s co-stars from The Office in Rainn Wilson, who had a brilliant cameo spot in last year’s Juno. Wilson portrays a drummer who was ousted from a band in the 80s just before they hit it big. When he’s invited to perform with his nephew’s band at a Prom, he’s given a second chance at stardom. Hilarity ensues.

The film is directed by Peter Cattaneo, who managed to combine heartwarming with risque in The Full Monty. It doesn’t really have any standout names otherwise, so the success is largely going to come on the basis of the advertising. The initial trailer looks funny, but doesn’t quite have the Must See aspect that propelled last year’s Superbad to great heights. It’s also sandwiched between two much comedies.

Opening: $15, Final: $55m

Swing Vote

For all the flack he gets, Kevin Costner has put together a rather respectable career. Certainly, when compared to his big three movies from the early 90s (Dances with Wolves, Robin Hood, and The Bodyguard) it’s looked rather lackluster, but he’s managed to carve a niche out for himself as a mid-tier lead who can do just about anything. He’s managed to do action, romance, westerns, and thrillers with fairly equal success. Certainly he’s not breaking the bank, but you can probably pen him into opening a film to $10 million with a final total around $30 million. The occasional breakout could push him north of $50m.

And he’s cheap, so you can probably figure that any film he’s in won’t cost much more than $20m to make. But he’s often criticized and his films regarded as failures. Such is the legacy of Waterworld.

Swing Vote is a dramedy where through a bit of plot goldbergisms, Costner is an everman who ends up having the vote who will determine the next US President. Both candidates (Republican incumbent Kelsey Grammar and Democratic nominee Denis Hopper) descend to try and influence this improbably important single vote directly.

The release of the film is fairly topical, as most political movies (and especially any campaign-centered film) usually are. Most films of this sort tend to be a bit mercenary. Witness Robin Williams’ Man of the Year from 2006, for instance. Even when well done, political films tend to be a bit offputting. We go to films for escapism, and reminding us of reality doesn’t tend to sell. 1997’s Wag the Dog was a bit of spot-on commentary, but a bit too close to reality. The numerous failed Middle East war films of the past couple of years can also be attributed to this.

In its favor, Swing Vote doesn’t seem to be bending down that path. The focus is instead upon the everyman Costner. On one hand, we’ve got the focus on the hometown americans. On the other, there’s the fantasy of “What if a normal person could make some changes”.

Because of this, I don’t think it’s going to get quite the cold reception that most political films do. Few even get to the $40 million mark. The only in the past decade that’s even got that far was the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Instead, I think it’s going to play a bit like 1993’s Dave.

Open: $10m, Final: $45m

Weekend of August 8

The Pineapple Express

The Apatow train keeps chugging along. after getting started with Anchorman in 2004, Apatow and crew hit it big in 2005 with The 40-Year old Virgin. A year later they knocked one out of the park with Talledega Nights. And then last year Apatow had the huge comedy tandem of Knocked Up and Superbad. This spring, he was also behind the modest hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The Pineapple Express sees Knocked Up star Seth Rogen taking the lead along with Spiderman’s James Franco. Rogen plays a stoner process server and Franco is his friendless dealer. When Rogen witnesses a murder by a crooked cop and a drug lord, the pair end up embroiled into the age-old comedy routine of buddies-on-the-run.

So we’ve got part stoner comedy, and part action-buddy comedy. In a sense, I think this is going to play a bit like an American version of an Edgar Wright film. The buddy element is a bit odd here because the vast majority of such films have the leads playing police officers or similar. Because of this, the film feels somewhat fresh, despite some standard conventions.

Both Apatow and Rogen are likely to hit more than they’ll miss. While they’ve had Walk Hard and Drillbit Taylor, respectively, the number of successes in their career lends a lot of strong support. Additionally, Rogen has gone from unknown to box-office boosting lead in the course of one summer.

Open: $30m, Final: $110m

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2

In truth, there’s one reason this film should stand out as notable. Last October, after Warner Bros. saw the absolute failure of The Invasion and the disappointing performance of The Brave One, production president Jeff Robinov declared that WB wouldn’t be making movies starring women any more.

He quickly backtracked on the statement (saying it wasn’t true, or he’d been misheard, or the context was misunderstood), but as expected there was a large furor over it. I sat down and scoured the schedule. Over the course of the next year, three films could be said to star women from the WB library (so through September 08.) The first two were P.S. I Love You and Fool’s Gold, blatantly labeled as romance films. The third is this one, a junior chick-lit adaptation with some romance elements but (as with its predecessor) a bit more focused on friendship and growing up.

The first film was a modest success three years ago, opening to just under $10m and finishing up with $39m. This is perfectly respectable for the teen girl market, but isn’t a breakout (witness The Princess Diaries). This summer sees a bit of a dearth of such films, however, which could help propel this one to somewhat larger heights.

Open: $10m, Final: $45m

Weekend of August 15

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

The Star Wars series stands as the epitomy of box office success, with the six films all registering among the biggest in their given years and bringing combined billions in revenue. Previous to the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, fans were anticipating and awaiting two trilogies: the first the prequels that we did get and the latter to cover events that happened after Return of the Jedi. The somewhat let-down of the three recent films has dampened that enthusiasm somewhat, but the name and universe still has a lot of public appeal.

With the unknown final trilogy likely in permanent limbo, Lucasfilm has instead looked towards other endeavors, fleshing out the nooks and crannies of the universe in various ways. For the most part, video games, comics, and novels have been the typical venues for this expansion, but in 2003 a series of cartoon shorts began to fill in the storyline between Episodes II and III. Entitled “Clone Wars”, this series was created by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack) and generated some rather strong acclaim, something that can’t really be said of Lucas’ own endeavors.

Fast forward to the present. Those TV shorts have become the basis of a new film that’s going to flesh out the storyline even more and then spin-off into a new TV series this fall. This time, it’s going to be done in some slick CG animation.

In a lot of ways, this could be very good. Lucas himself isn’t directly involved, so the people at work can probably keep things fresh and interesting. The visual style is a nice change of pace and could help keep the idea of Star Wars interesting. No mean feat when you consider the series is over thirty years old, now. The TV series itself seems to have a good premise with some episodes focused on smaller side characters and some that don’t feature much beyond the titular clones.

Of course, this is about the movie, and it feels a bit more stale. We’ve got an adventure quest featuring the typical Jedi heroes (including Anakin, as this comes before his Vader turn in Episode III). I can’t help but feel that the one thing Lucas really missed in the new trilogy that continues here is that the fun of Star Wars is in the scrappy rebels taking on improbable odds and succeeding, not in the hokey mysticism of the Jedi. Han Solo was an identifiable, flawed and enticing figure in a way that none of the newer characters have tried to match.

Plus, the first trailer for the film is extremely bland, perhaps one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It runs long, gives away much of the story, and has some groaningly awful taglines: “SEE STAR WARS LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE”. It might have worked 20 years ago, but not any more.These things need to be snappy, grab the audience attention and leave them salivating for more. That’s what gets them into the theaters.

Opening: $45m, Final: $140m

Tropic Thunder

Except for The Clone Wars, the end of August seems to be the typical film dumping ground. So why is this possibly priming itself to being one of the most anticipated films of the summer?

Three words: Robert Downey, Jr.

Iron Man transformed Downey from a well regarded actor who’s the butt of many jokes for his off-screen foibles. It’s a career-changing role somewhat akin to Johnny Depp’s in Pirates of the Caribbean. And Paramount cannily attached a trailer of Tropic Thunder to Iron Man, starting off what I expect is a summer-long campaign to whet audience’s appetites.

The concept: an film director, irate with the egos of his actors ruining his Vietnam War epic sends them off for some training in the jungle where they end up embroiled in a real conflict. At just that it could probably be a passable but ultimately forgettable film.

However, Downey’s performance drives the concept over the top. He’s a well-regarded Australian actor who undertakes a surgery so he can play a black sergeant in the film. So driven is he to immerse himself in the role that he refuses to break character. Of course since he has no idea how to be black, he’s left with quoting lines from sitcoms.

The trailer is absolutely hilarious. Downey’s joined by Ben Stiller (as the action hero), and Jack Black (as the prop-joke comic actor), each filling their actor role to a T. And even if Stiller sometimes tickles the annoyance meter, he’s also behind the camera this time, and his last film from that end was the brilliant Zoolander. I expect Tropic Thunder to deliver accordingly.

The downside is that it plays at the end of summer. There’s a long road between now and then and while the first trailer is brilliant, they run the risk of over-exposing it. Also, the actors playing actors in a movie schtick could be a bit too meta and may turn audiences off.

But they should be fine if they keep selling Downey.

Open: $35m, Final: $110m

The International

Clive Owen as an interpol agent investigating corruption in global banking with Naomi Watts as his DA assistant. It’s directed by Tom Tykwar whos’ most known for Run Lola Run. None of the principles are box office draws, and given the release date, I don’t think that there’s any huge expectations for it.

Open: $10m, Final: $35m

Mirrors

A remake of a Korean horror film. While Asian horror remakes were a popular genre a few years ago, it’s become quite tired, and by now it’s very ho-hum. The Eye and Shutter, both earlier this year, failed to draw much. I don’t think Mirrors will do any better. Star Keifer Sutherland is big on TV, not in movies.

Open: $5m, Final: $15m

Weekend of August 22

The House Bunny

I swear someone wrote this script with Reese Witherspoon in mind: an Playboy Bunny is kicked out of the Mansion for being too old at 27. Directionless, she ends up a sorority house mother for a bunch of geeky girls and shows them how to be beautiful. Presumably there will be lessons learned about being true to oneself or somesuch.

Witherspoon has mostly moved on from these sorts of films thanks to her Oscar from Walk the Line. Instead we get Anna Faris, who’s talented but mostly known for the Scary Movie series.

This is unlikely to break out. The trailer has some fairly typical laughs as Faris plays a bubblehead who’s only got a few very specific skills. It’s also somewhat offensive; women don’t need to go the route of Playboy to be beautiful. Plus it’s got the typical Hollywood ugly going on: hot girls with their hair up and glasses, just a layer of rouge away from the red carpet.

Opening: $10m, Final: $30m

The Accidental Husband

A romantic comedy from fledgling distributor Yari Film Group (biggest film to date: The Illusionist). We’ve got Uma Thurman as a radio talk-show host who dispenses romance advice. Due to some internet shenanigans, she ends up married to a fireman (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) while she’s planning her own wedding to Colin Firth.

RomComs can sell very well, but they are somewhat subject to name recognition issues. For this film, there really aren’t any. Thurman is known, but her biggest films are all directed by Quentin Tarantino. With this she could be attempting to remake herself as a romantic lead, but it’s an iffy shot, especially coming from Yari.

Opening: $5m, Final: $20m

Death Race

Another year, another late summer Jason Statham film primed for the Labor Day weekend. He’s had a number of these over the past several years, somewhat setting himself up as the go-to action guy for what is typically the weakest holiday weekend of the year. Hey, if it works.

The biggest film he’s headlined was The Transporter 2 in 2005. Two years ago he had Crank, which proved to be an enjoyable action-fest and finished up with $27m. Last year’s WAR had him face off against Jet Li and saw $22m in business.

This time around he’s starring in a remake of Death Race 2000. It’s being directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, last seen behind the camera with Alian Vs. Predator. Like Statham, he’s carved out a lower-profile niche for himself.

Nothing great should be expected here, but it does have Statham behind the wheel of a car, which is a good sign (he also sat behind the wheel in The Italian Job, his biggest film).

Opening: $10m, Final: $25m

Crossing Over

This could be a powerful drama about immigrants attempting to achieve legal status in Los Angeles. It’s got some pedigree with Harrison Ford and Sean Penn, but I wonder about the quality if it’s got such a shitty release date.

Open: $5m, Final: $15m, but it could end up like Crash

Fly Me to the Moon

A Belgian CG animated film that’s apparently the first such feature entirely done in 3D. The only other notable thing about it is that Buzz Aldrin apparently provides a voice. Visually it looks fine, if a bit too strongly reminiscent of Pixar, but story-wise it looks entirely pedestrian and forgettable.

Open: $5m, Final: $10m

Weekend of August 29

Babylon A.D.

In 2000, Pitch Black set up Vin Diesel for a breakout. He successfully capitalized on it with 2001’s The Fast and the Furious and then followed it up with XXX in 2002. He seemed like he was primed to be the next big action star. However, A Man Apart failed to succeeded and The Chronicles of Riddick disappointed.

The Pacifier in 2005 seemed to indicate he might have a new career direction: family oriented action comedy. But since then he hasn’t appeared in anything. He was slated to star in Hitman, but opted instead to go for Babylon A.D., which seems like it could be a less cerebral Children of Men.

This isn’t likely to be a career revitalization. The film was hit by numerous production delays, went over-budget, and has seen its release bumped from February to late August, which isn’t a good sign. At best it may turn out to be a middling hit for Diesel, but is certainly a step down from his career heights.

Open: $20m, Final: $45m

College

On the cusp of going back to school, a low-brow comedy about a group of high schoolers who take a weekend trip to see what college is like. While it’d probably like to be another Road Trip, it doesn’t even have the name recognition of Tom Green to drive it. Perhaps Accepted would be a better target, but it doesn’t have a cute concept or a good trailer. So it’s left with Eurotrip. Not really great company.

Open: $8m, Final: $15m

Traitor

Don Cheadle is awesome. Guy Pearce is pretty cool. This film may be critically good, but it’s not going to go anywhere.  It may not even get a wide release.

Open: $2m, Final: $5m

Disaster Movie

This is another effort by the same guys who brought us Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans. Spoof films have been experiencing diminishing returns of late, as audiences come to realize that they’re not very funny or good. Given that the budget for any of these seems to be about $20-$30m, we’re probably not long from the tipping point where it’s no longer viable to make them.

Open: $5m, Final: $10m

Overall

We’re probably not going to see much that breaks the typical August pattern. The early films will be fairly big, while the late ones are the dregs that get shoved off to the side. If anything breaks out and surprises, it’s likely to be Tropic Thunder.

After each month, I’ll look into writing up a recap of how things did in comparison to my predictions.

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