November Movie Preview

After two months of throwing everything at theaters to see what sticks, Hollywood enters the holiday season by slowing down the number of releases (down to one a weekend, in some cases), heating up the advertising (which has been hitting since mid-summer), and expecting bigger returns (although even with a holiday bounce, High School Musical 3 could be a tough act to beat.)

November is a bit of an odd month. Opening weekends tend to be very large, almost on par with May releases, but the weekday numbers are, for the most part, pretty bad. It’s actually arguable that the weak weekdays are the reason for the strong weekends. In 2001, Monsters, Inc. beat Shrek on just about every comparable weekend, however it grossed less in the final tally, mostly because Shrek had the stronger weekday numbers. Following this, Pixar started to pressure Disney to give it the more profitable summer release dates.

So while November is big… it’s not summer big. The strength of the Thanksgiving holiday is overshadowed by the incredible weakness of the following weekend. It’s also not December big. Opening weekends are better, but the week following Christmas is the best movie viewing season of the year. But even so, November is big, and while we won’t see another Harry Potter this year, it should have fireworks enough.

Weekend of November 7

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

In between the pop cultural phenom of Shrek and the brilliant surprise of Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks experimented a lot with other properties. They’ve seen success enough, between Over the Hedge, Shark Tale, and Bee Movie, but they didn’t find anything that really latched on. Except for the penguins.

What amounted to a series of cameos made the first Madagascar film a success. The penguins were a hoot and easy to market because of their brevity. Add an inspired performance by Sacha Baron Cohen and it’s not entirely surprising that audiences glossed over an otherwise completely mediocre film. Given the comedic talent of the cast (arguably better than Shrek), it’s surprisingly underwhelming. However, audiences supported it to the tune of $193m, so a sequel was inevitable.

The advertising has been very much a rest-on-their-laurels move, pretty much just re-introducing the important points: funny zoo animals, funnier lemurs, even more funny penguins. At a guess based on the title, the setting changes from Madagascar to Africa.

The weekend is roughly the same as that of Monsters, Inc., Bee Movie, and The Incredibles which has proven quite profitable over the course of the last decade for family films. While it’s not absent from competition, it does have a weekend buffer between it and High School Musical 3, so families aren’t likely to be spent on competing products.

The biggest question is whether Madagascar will remain a franchise for Dreamworks. Kung Fu Panda succeeded very well earlier this year, and provided a rough benchmark for Madagascar’s success. If Madagascar 2 is heavily under either the $60m opening or the $215m final gross, it might be best to put the zoo animals back on the shelf.

Opening: $55m, Final: $165m

Unfortunately, I was sidetracked from writing this post before the weekend began, so I won’t provide predictions for Role Models or Soul Men, since they’re already out in the wild. Despite already being released, I won’t be updating the above prediction on Madagascar 2, either.

Weekend of November 14

Quantum of Solace

Perhaps the most venerable franchise ever, James Bond is still making large returns many decades after his debut. The fact that the acting face has changed so much and he’s now on his sixth hasn’t really affected his box office acumen. During the Pierce Brosnan years, it seemed like Bond had established a fairly standard model of success: they would open strongly in November, play strongly as a counterpoint to the more family-friendly fare (while still keeping the PG-13 rating that would allow families to attend if they so chose), and then finish north of $100m. The box office tallies rose for each film, but so did ticket prices and budgets, so the difference between Goldeneye and Die Another Day isn’t so large.

Despite getting a reboot and a new lead in Daniel Craig, Casino Royale didn’t seem to deviate much. In fact, upon release, it looked like a disappointment, since it was down from the last Brosnan effort. The budget was also up, and for a moment it seemed like a misstep to take Bond in a new direction.

But then the business kept up, and despite lagging behind Die Another Day in the beginning, Casino Royale had a spectacular run and earned over four times the opening weekend. Internationally the news was even better, and it cruised pas half a billion in worldwide receipts. The reboot gambit had paid off. Bond is now more hip, edgy, and accessible than ever before. He’s not the suave playboy of Connery or Brosnan, but instead a superspy who walks with the likes of Jason Bourne and grabs the viewer in a more immediate manner.

In a way, you can look at Casino Royale as a proof of concept film. It’s taking a known product and using the familiar while still pushing the boundaries of expectation. Quantum of Solace is likely to step away from the familiar. They have already delivered the familair to the viewer and can now move on. The story this time is new (although the title is taken from a Bond short story) and from the advertising we’re promised to see further into the darkness of Bond’s soul.

In a sense, an apt comparison to these Bond films is the current Batman franchise. With Batman Begins, there were a number of familiar and expected elements, but also this boundry pushing and slightly skewed viewpoints on the character and universe. The Dark Knight followed up with an even more edgy view. It wasn’t a film that rested on the laurels of earlier success and it broke out in a very big way because of that.

That’s not to say that Quantum of Solace is going to see two-and-a-half times the box office of Casino Royale. The Dark Knight had a number of factors which accounted for its momentous box office haul. However, the anticipation for the film is high and it should see an increase.

Aiding it is the fact that competition is virtually non-existant. The biggest competitor in general that it might have faced was Harry Potter, which has been shuffled to next summer. The more direct competition is at least two weekends away, and not nearly at the same level. When looking at the action dollar, Jason Statham’s Transporter 3 and Punisher: War Zone aren’t going to compare to James Bond.

The biggest question here is whether or not it’ll be big enough to retake the title of biggest spy from Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt. Given the international receipts that are already piling in (including the biggest opening weekend in British box office history), it seems quite likely that Bond will do so.

Opening: $75m, Final: $260m

Weekend of November 21

Bolt

Disney animation has come a long way since the heyday of the 90s. The once venerable summer institution has become something of an also-ran in the field of feature cartoons, regularly exceeded by studio-mate Pixar and Dreamworks. The last strong entry that Disney released was Lilo & Stitch in 2002, which took a quirky character and premise to incredible heights and spawned a brand of direct to video sequels and an enjoyable TV series (a realm where Disney still does quite strongly)

But on the silver screen, the studio hasn’t seen quite the same strong returns. Following Lilo & Stitch were three lackluster efforts in Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range. The last was so unimpressive that it was released outside the traditional summer or holiday bracket. It earned just $50m, and Disney hasn’t had a traditional 2D animated release since.

In an effort to keep up with the times, the studio has transitioned to computer animated fare. Initially with Chicken Little in 2005, which earned a strong but not spectacular $135m, then Meet the Robinsons in the spring of ’07 which stopped just short of $100m. Compared to the grosses that Pixar and Dreamworks sees, this is a bit of a downer and really isn’t even impressive enough to compare to Fox’s Blue Sky Studios releases. The quality of the product has been good, but it’s not been able to deliver, and Disney’s once great marketing machine seems to be falling apart. Witness how WALL-E, despite absolutely spectacular reviews, failed to take off in a big way this summer. (Or how last year’s Ratatoille barely crossed the double century mark.)

Thus the stage is set for Bolt. The story here is servicably enjoyable: an acting dog doesn’t realize he’s not a superhero and believes his owner is really being abducted by bad guys, so he breaks loose to go save her. It’s high concept enough to grab a wide audience and has a good amount of visual humor potential for the kids. Even so, it’s not quite enough to break this open as sure-fire.

The interesting part is behind the scenes. Bolt was originally called American Dog, and was helmed by Chris Sanders as his follow-up to Lilo & Stitch. He eventually got the ax because his take was a bit too weird and out there for the studio execs, but you can still get a sense of his quirky style.

And beyond that are just two words: Hamster. Ball.

Potentially the breakout character of the year is Rhino the hamster, who is pitch-perfect in the advertising and may sell the film all on his own. He’s small, fat, and shows absolutely no fear in part due to his apparently impervious plastic ball.

Bolt is still an uneven possibility, but it’s got potential. It won’t likely match up to the Pixar efforts, or even Dreamworks, but it could be a step in the right direction. Ironically, next year will see Disney return to the traditional 2D roots with The Princess and the Frog.

Opening: $35m, Final: $140m

Twilight

The realm of young adult book adaptations has a fairly strong break between two groups. On one hand is Harry Potter. On the other is everything else. Some may argue that Narnia belongs in with Harry Potter, but at this point, it looks like a one-hit-wonder.

In most cases, this isn’t a problem. Studios realize that the likes of Holes, Nim’s Island, and Bridge to Terabithia are not in the Harry Potter league, and everything is scaled as appropriate. Budgets and expectations are smaller and a haul under $100m isn’t seen as an ideal opening weekend but rather a good total run.

Even so, there is an ongoing effort to find the next Harry Potter. It’s in this transition ground that we find the disappointments. Films that can cross the century threshold, but aren’t good enough to really break out. A Series of Unfortunate Events exists here, which despite the presence of Jim Carrey doing his creepy uncle best, shot just under $120m. Or Eragon, which was a phenomenal disappointment at $75m, but in retrospect we have to wonder what they were thinking. Of course we can’t ignore Prince Caspian, the second Narnia film which managed to halve the spectacular box office of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

All these films have tried to fit into the Potter shoes and failed.

Which brings us to Twilight, the latest book series to try and follow in those large footsteps. Sort of.

The Twilight series came out of nowhere in 2005 where its story of love between a human girl and vampire boy captured the hearts and minds of tween and teen girls everywhere. That’s where we see the first difference from the aforementioned films. This isn’t a strict fantasy, although it does have supernatural elements. The selling point here is the gothic, moody, teenage angst.

The second big difference is that Twilight has a very definite gender skew. While girls tend to be more likely to read than boys, movie audiences are more balanced. Twilight, though, doesn’t exhibit the properties that are likely to get boys out for a viewing. At first, this might be seen as a weakness, but it’s slowly become clear that girls and younger women can and are a box office force to be reckoned with. The recent successes of musicals Hairspray and Mamma Mia! are a testament. Also the large response for The Princess Diaries. Plus there’s Disney’s recent direct forays for the tween and teen set in Hannah Montana and High School Musical (although the latter may have left a large amount on the table due to a poor release date.) All of these films have done great business, and Twilight, despite not having quite the same bounciness or musical nature is tapping into the same audience, and it’s got name recognition and excitement to match.

(Also, lest anyone forget, Titanic’s box office run was built on the repeat business of girls and women.)

Shows are already selling out for the film, so there’s enough reason to believe the opening weekend could be large, if not huge. It’s entirely possible that distributor Summit Entertainment will see more in three days of Twilight than it earned in all of its other films combined. And even if it doesn’t, Twilight was a cheap film to produce, possibly as little as $30m. That’s another difference from the earlier films. Boys tend to need big budgets to satisfy their cinematic cravings. Girls don’t seem to require the same. What it means is that Twilight has a very fast road to profitability.

Opening: $45m, Final: $150m

Weekend of November 28 (Films open November 26)

Australia

Baz Luhrmann has made a bit of a name for himself in film. His efforts tend to have lurid sets and costume design and an air to the direction that belies his stage direction roots. His efforts are both otherworldly yet still accessible. Perhaps most important is that Luhrmann’s films seem to have a rather strong appeal for multiple demographics.

It’s somewhat surprising to think that he’s only done three films. Australia is his fourth effort and it marks a bit of a change. While his previous films were presented somewhat as stage plays, Australia has the sense of a more typical grand cinematic effort. It still looks lavish and engaging, but not quite in the slightly surreal way of his previous films.

The story is centered around the WW2 bombing of Darwin. Nicole Kidman is an english aristocrat who, with the help of Hugh Jackman as a cattle drover, must protect her cattle and possibly some aboriginal kids from the horrors of war. There’s probably some romance in there, too.

On the upside, Australia looks quite good. Despite the WW2 setting, it’s not a war film, and the advertising plays up the romance and adventure, as well as having a heightened sense that Australia is an otherworldly place. Kidman and Jackman are both popular stars, although as yet they aren’t quite top tier; Jackman especially hasn’t seen a large film outside of an effects vehicle. This could be their chance to see a large breakout.

The downside is, well, the setting. Australia might be a wonderful place, but it’s possibly too niche to appeal to American audiences. Despite the richness of Australia’s history and wonderful differences it has compared to the US (or, well, just about anywhere on Earth), this might be relegated to a high adventure romance film and the audience might be strongly leaning towards women.

Luhrmann’s two previous films earned between $40m and $60m in the US, but had much stronger overseas grosses above $100m. It’s possible Australia could see a similar discrepancy, although Fox has to hope it will do better stateside, considering the $130m budget. The long Thanksgiving weekend could help it along.

Opening: $20m (three day)/$30m (five day), Final: $75m

Four Christmases

It’s almost a tradition now that a film comes out almost every year that focuses on people who are against the spirit of the season in some fashion. Recent entries to this have included Bad Santa, Christmas with the Kranks, and Fred Clause.

The last is prescient, since Vince Vaughn is also the star here. He’s teamed up with Reese Witherspoon this time as they play a couple who has their tradition of avoiding their families for Christmas overturned by some inopportune weather and a poorly placed news crew force them to have Christmas with their families. All four of them. The comedy hijinks presumably ensue.

The pairing of Vaughn and Witherspoon is a bit of a coup from a comedy-with-romance (if not a strict romantic comedy) perspective. Vaughn’s comedic chops are quite strong. His biggest film is Wedding Crashers, but he’s also had The Break-Up, Dodgeball and a scene-stealing performance in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Beyond those, he’s had a number of solid performances running all the way back to Old School.

For Witherspoon, she’s been a bit quiet since her Oscar-winning performance in Walk The Line, but she had three straight years of big success from 2001-2003 with the two Legally Blonde films and Sweet Home Alabama.

Despite the romance angle, there’s no reason to think that this will skew heavily female. Vaughn should bring out the guys, as he tends to be big for the proto-typical frat-boy crowd. Even so, there seems to be a fairly set ceiling for these sorts of films. Competition is light, though, with Role Models entering its fourth weekend. Also, Australia may play stronger with the romance crowd.

Opening: $25m (three day)/$35m (five day), Final: $80m

Transporter 3

Jason Statham has established his career quite well. He is the late-summer action guy. If you want someone to lead the Labor Day weekend, he is your man, and he’ll do it faster and cheaper than anyone else. This niche is something he does quite well, but few people are under any illusions that he’s able to lead films to bigger and better things.

So it’s really odd that his latest film is opening over a much bigger holiday weekend. Thanksgiving isn’t normally the ground for a straight up actioner, but stranger things have happened.

In its favor, the Transporter franchise is definitely the most recognizable vehicle for Statham and it is relatively popular. Even his non-Transporter films tend to play up some similarity, be it the bang-up action (as in Crank), or having him behind the wheel (as in… just about everything else), so it’s clear that if they’re going to try an experiement in a new release date, this is probably the best choice.

Even so, Statham’s box office prowess is really predictable. For any film where he could be considered the primary lead, his biggest is the previous Transporter effort, which managed an amazing $43m total. It was also his biggest opening at $16m. In most cases, an opening and final around 2/3rds to 3/4ths those numbers is likely.

However, while this is an experiment, it’s unlikely it can go horribly wrong. Even with the odd release date, Statham should bring out his modest fan-base, and if action fans have tired a bit of James Bond, they may be looking for something new to whet their appetites.

Opening: $15m (three day)/$20m (five day), Final: $45m

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