The weeks following Labor Day typically are a bit dark for movies. Kids have gone back to school, thus the cineplexes don’t have the benefit of strong weekdays to bolster grosses, and after the four months of intense movie advertising and high concept affairs, audiences typically want a breather. Because of this, September is historically the weakest month for movie business. It’s the only month that doesn’t have a $40m opening film, and in fact only three have ever even crossed the $30m threshold.
The other historically weak months have a bit of help to bolster their thresholds. January has latent holiday business, not to mention the occasional high profile release. April comes at the tail end of the fairly strong spring period, which has started to see some rather high profile blockbusters. And October has the ever successful Halloween period to drive up the scary movie business.
September doesn’t really have the latent summer business, because it’s mostly dried up by the end of August. There are occasional films which have strong business into the fall months, but these are somewhat rare. Instead it’s release tends to be littered with films that would fit right into the late August spots, but got pushed out because of the sheer volume of low-budget action films that Hollywood can churn out. There are also the early potential awards contenders, such as last year’s 3:10 to Yuma, but these films are going for the long road to profitability, not the quick recoup of investment.
With that in mind, let’s see what is in store for this year.
Weekend of September 5
The Accidental Husband
This used to be an August release, but as the last few weeks of the month filled up, Yari Film Group decided to bow out on the competition and make this one a September release. Here’s what I had to say:
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.
On the upside, the shift isn’t likely to have any great effect on the overall prospects for the film. On the downside, it didn’t have especially great prospects from the get-go.
Opening: Still $5m, Final: $15m
In nearly every conversation I’ve had about this film, someone has pointed out that the title sounds really, really dumb. This is a remake of a Thai action film with the same title. For whatever reason, Lionsgate chose to keep the same title (after pondering such alternatives as Big Hit in Bangkok). They probably misstepped a bit here, but it may not matter too much, in the end.
The upside for the film is that it’s being done by the same directors as the Thai original, and it looks pretty slick. So it could be a pretty good film.
The downside is twofold. This is a serious action film which political overtones, somewhat akin to last year’s The Kingdom. While it avoids tying itself to any current political hotbed, it still may turn off viewers in the same way. In addition to that, it’s starring Nicholas Cage. While he’s had a fairly successful career as an action leading man, the films he does well in tend to be strong enough to sell themselves, without requiring his everyman demeanor to pull the film along. Cage is enjoyable, but he’s not a selling point.
He’s had several films released in September, with The Wicker Man, Lord of War, and Matchstick Men all underperforming, regardless of critical reception. There probably won’t be anything too different this time around.
Opening: $10m, Final: $25m
Weekend of September 12
The big news here is Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, together again for the first time. While the two veteran actors have been in the same film before, perhaps most famously in Godfather II and they even met up in Heat, but this time around they’re sharing significant screen time. This isn’t a minor selling-point, as the pair have something upwards of 70 years of combined experience at doing crime thrillers, so this is essentially the dream match-up for the genre.
The plot looks sufficiently bleak and convoluted, with the are they good or bad question keeping the suspense high and all the characters inhabiting a large region of grey morality that provides a successful wellspring of quality stories for movies. The Departed recently hit upon this to stunning success (and an Academy Award, finally, for director Martin Scorsese.) The hope is that Rightous Kill can probably do the same. If it’s sufficiently good, it could be an early release awards contender.
The downside here is that while there’s some reason to expect critical success, the business side isn’t necessarily going to follow. Neither Pacino nor DeNiro are known for their business might, instead tending to find success as part of ensembles or in critical darlings. DeNiro has had some success in comedies over the past decade, but outside of that, their films are modest successes at best.
Further, while The Departed did very well in this genre, it’s more the exception than the rule. Moreover, while director Jon Avnet might have directed Pacino earlier this year in 88 Minutes, he’s certainly no Scorsese, and is more known for his TV work.
Ultimately, Righteous Kill is going to rely upon its quality to generate any buzz and legs. If it’s very good it might cruise quite a ways, but that’s not the most likely scenario.
Opening: $10m, Final: $30m
Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys
Perry is perhaps the biggest box office surprise success over the past decade. He literally exploded on the scene in 2005 with Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which opened to over $21m and managed to grab first place that weekend. This is despite the fact that it opened to less than 1500 theaters (the other two new releases had at least 1000 more), and that it was opening against the third weekend of the extremely successful Will Smith vehicle, Hitch.
With a release like that Diary was probably expected to do business around $5m or so, followed by a quick exit. I doubt anyone expected it to do $20m over its entire run, much less in three days. In the end, it earned $50m and was one of the bigger surprises of the entire year.
Perry didn’t stop there. A year later he released Madea’s Family Reunion, which hit north of $30m and finished with $63m. 2007 brought both Daddy’s Little Girls and Why Did I Get Married, which opened to $11m and $20m respectively, and finished with $31m and $55m. And this march he had Meet the Browns, which had another $20m opening and finished with $41m. Yes, he’s releasing two successful films per year, now. Next year looks to keep up the pace, with Madea Goes to Jail in February and A Jazz Man’s Blues later in the year.
It’s fairly clear that the Perry train isn’t going to stop rolling. Even the lowest earning films in Daddy’s Little Girls and Meet the Browns can’t be considered failures, especially considering the minuscule budgets. Perry’s managed to tap into his specific audience just about perfectly, and he’s achieved success because of that. This drives Hollywood nuts, because his market isn’t the typical 15-35 white male. There African American market isn’t going to be gigantic, but it’s a bit like horror films: there’s a specific audience that can be quite loyal if the product meets their standards. Perry meets those in spades.
Of course having said that, there’s a bit of concern with The Family that Preys. For one, Perry is successful but not bulletproof. His films have rather poor legs, instead pulling in the bulk of the business up front. Second, he’s mostly successful when headlining his famous Madea character. Daddy’s Little Girls didn’t feature her, and didn’t reach the same heights because of it.
Third, The Family that Preys is a bit of a change of pace for him, stepping away from the uplifting and feel-good nature of his other films to instead explore the sometimes dark relationships between two families, one black and one white. While this may possibly bring in a crossover audience, it runs the risk of alienating his core while not doing that. (Unfortunately, white audiences are rather racist towards films marketed to African Americans, and Perry has that label.)
Much like Righteous Kill, The Family that Preys is probably going to be a bit reliant upon the response for its final business tally, but the opening weekend shouldn’t be more than a tick or two below the typical Perry film.
Opening: $15m, Final: $35m.
Speaking of markets that Hollywood just doesn’t get, women comprise a big one. Sure, there’s the typical lip service, but by and large, women are of definite secondary status when it comes to films. Except for a few select genres, a woman in a leading role is going to be a rarity (there are very few Ripleys, for instance.) And in the typical headline films, they’re going to be relegated to strictly support status (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s role in the otherwise mostly exceptional The Dark Knight) or eye-candy (Megan Fox in Transformers).
When women are given more prominent roles, it’s usually in fare that is second-tier and has poorer release dates and weaker advertising. When such films fail to do boffo business (see Jodie Foster’s The Brave One from last September), it leads the studios to assume that women aren’t a good market for films.
This is really odd, because there’s ample evidence to the contrary. Just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, and (especially) Sex and the City cruise easily past the century mark. And, of course, the biggest film of all time was spearheaded largely by the distaff business. Batman doesn’t have a hope of toppling Titanic. I wonder if he’d have a shot had he treated his girlfriend better.
So that brings us to The Women, a remake of a 1939 film based on a play about the comedic interplay of a group of New York socialites. Somewhat impressively, the film is directed, written, produced, and starring women. It stars Meg Ryan and Annette Bening, who bring a fair bit of name recognition, and from the trailer looks like it might be quite good.
It’s also a film that almost got shoved aside. Despite the apparent quality, it didn’t seem like it was going to get a strong release. Distributor Picturehouse is a definite indie company, and obviously can’t bring the marketing strength to bear, but it seemed up until a few months ago that this would get a minor theatrical release and then hopefully make its money back on video. Sex and the City apparently changed all that, and it should get a wide release, now.
How well it does probably depends primarily on how much public knowledge there is. If the word doesn’t get out, and it’s only barely wide (i.e. under 1000 theaters), then it’ll probalby perform like most Picturehouse flicks and end up sub $20m in the long run. However, it’s got the potential to pass Pan’s Labyrinth as the studio’s biggest film.
Somewhat refreshingly, i’s unlikely that the typical reasons to predict box office strength are going to apply here. While Ryan and Bening have name recognition, neither of them have had a really successful film since the ’90s. And that doesn’t matter at all. With hope The Women will become the strongest success of the fall season, and we might see Hollywood make some changes because of it.
Opening: $10m, Final: $40m (with a much higher potential)
Weekend of September 19
This is a comedic take on the whole ‘I can see dead people’ theme that was most successfully exemplified by The Sixth Sense in 1999. That’s hardly the only film to tread those waters, as Hollywood seems to enjoy going back to it every few years, in a variety of genres from horror to romance to drama.
This time around Ricky Gervais plays a dentist who hates people and dies a little while undergoing a routine medical procedure. Because of this, he can suddenly convene with the dead. Greg Kinnear plays a ghost who befriends him. Hijinks ensue and, presumably, Gervais will find true love and learn to accept others, not necessarily in that order.
The film looks cute and Gervais is a spot-on comedic talent, so there’s no reason to believe it’s going to be terrible. However, while Hollywood likes going back to it, The Sixth Sense and Ghost are the most successful comparisons. In most cases, the films will end up with much more modest totals. Given the release date, there’s no reason to believe this is going to break out.
Opening: $10m, Final: $25m
The shine’s really coming off of the computer animation vehicle. It’s been almost thirteen years since the original Toy Story jumpstarted the medium, and while the first decade or so was an unparalleled success, the past few years have seen the stakes drop somewhat dramatically. This is somewhat expected, because early on such films were quite expensive and the studios that had the capabilities to make them were quite few and far between. Thus the ones that did had a bit of an impetus to put forth a top tier product.
More recently, other studios have jumped into the game, and that’s led to a drop in quality and thus a drop in box office potential. That’s not the entire story, as even industry king Pixar has seen grosses drop, with its last three films failing to cross the $250m mark. These aren’t failures, but they’re not stunning successes.
Even so, expectations for the smaller films doesn’t tend to be especially high. While Pixar has continued to push the technical envelope, and the budgets have remained high (Wall-E cost around $180m), many such films are quite inexpensive and can be considered successes even if they don’t garner top tier business. The Weinstein Company has worked to fit into this niche, and Igor is their third such foray. The first film they had was Hoodwinked, which was a bit of a surprise success in early 2006, earning over $50m. However, the followup Doogal didn’t impress, and failed to even reach $10m.
Plot-wise, Igor follows the title character in his quest to stop being a minion and instead make a name for himself as a mad scientist. His solution is to create life. Visually, it seems somewhere between Pixar and Tim Burton, with a fairly strong dose of cuddly creepiness. As is typical, there’s a host of celebrity voices, with John Cusack in the lead and Steve Buscemi, Eddy Izzard, and Molly Shannon providing support.
This seems like it’s going to fit in with the various fable/fairy tale humor films, such as the aforementioned Hoodwinked, but also Happily ‘n’ Ever After (a dismal failure) and Shrek, which is the gold standard for the genre. A non-CG success can be found in last year’s Enchanted.
If it’s as good as the trailer seems to indicate, it could do fairly strong business. Despite the overall weakness of the autumn box office, animation has found success. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride earned over $50m in 2005, Open Season earned over $80m in 2006, and Shark Tale earned $160m with an early October, 2006 release (thanks, in part, to Will Smith).
Opening: $15m, Final: $50m
Samuel L. Jackson has been in at least three films every year going back to 2002. He’s easily been one of the most prolific actors this decade, and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. What’s especially impressive is that while he’s often viewed as little more than a catch-phrase dropping angry man, he’s shown up in a variety of different genres and exposure levels. He’s certainly not a choosy actor, but he does seem to want to try a lot of different things.
Lakeview Terrace is a race relations film, where Jackson plays a cop in a Southern California suburb who takes a strong dislike to a interracial, newlywed couple who move in next door. It’s not likely to pull any punches, and is probably an attempt at an awards contender in the same vein as Crash. The good news is that Lakeview Terrace looks taught and gripping and might try to ask a number of hard questions for which US society does not yet have answers.
The bad news is director Neil LaBute. While a number of his early films garnered strong critical praise, he’s never done anything breakout. And his last film was The Wicker Man, which was an amazing failure at all levels except for providing fodder for YouTube comedy videos.
If LaBute can find his directorial voice from half a decade ago, it might surprise and stick around for a while. Otherwise, Lakeview Terrace will probably be quickly forgotten.
Opening: $5m, Final: $20m
My Best Friend’s Girl
Jason Biggs plays himself from any other film (read: American Pie). He’s a lovable loser with a romantic streak but no skills with the ladies.
Dane Cook is his best friend, who makes his career being a bad date so other guys will look good in comparison.
Kate Hudson is the love interest. Cook agrees to date her so she’ll see Biggs in a better light and stay with him.
This is the third straight fall rom-com for Cook, and he’s not seen any great success. 2006’s Employee of the Month (with Jessica Simpson) earned just $28m. Last year’s Good Luck Chuck (with Jessica Alba) got to just $35m. He’s mostly been viewed as a generic funnyman. Amusing, but not really a draw. Biggs is even less so. While he had success in the American Pie films, he’s had nothing that’s broken out since.
The draw here is Hudson, who’s making a name for herself in the RomCom genre. Earlier this year Fools Gold passed the $70m mark after a $21m opening, and in 2006 she had You, Me, and Dupree which did similar business. Back in 2003, she starred in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which passed $100m when all was said and done.
I’m feeling slightly bullish about My Best Friend’s Girl, despite the problems that Cook and Biggs bring to the table. However, Hudson’s a strength. And there’s The Cars song, which makes for a bit of excellent advertising.
Opening: $20m, Final: $60m
The latest from Luc Besson, this film has Liam Neeson playing a father who’s out to find his abducted daughter. Neeson has the typical action thriller skills of being able to kill people in many, many often painful ways, as well as a smattering of neat spy abilities with technology.
While Besson’s probably best remembered for putting together the brilliant Leon: The Professional, his career is mostly comprised of writing low-budget actioners which tend to be all style and no substance. This isn’t bad, as it’s provided Jason Stathem a career, but there’s not much memorable to them. And Statham has the ability to draw people in to a degree. Neeson doesn’t really even that, despite having a number of top tier films to his credit, including Batman Begins and The Phantom Menace.
Mostly, though, this is a really packed weekend and something is going to be left behind. Taken seems to be veering towards the thriller rather than action aspect, which means that while it might pack a punch, it probably won’t seem as fun as the other options.
Opening: $5m, Final: $15m
Weekend of September 26
Fresh off the back-to-back $300m successes of Transformers and Indiana Jones, Shia LeBeouf takes top billing in a more modest fare, which is a modern take on the big brother concept. He’s a man on the run after being framed as a terrorist while the unseen real terrorists drive him to do bad things as they watch him through all the neat technology that makes our 21st century world interesting and, possibly, a bit scary.
While it’s not likely to create any deep thinking, Eagle Eye is probably poised to be the first big success of the fall season. LeBeouf is teamed up with directo D.J. Caruso, who also directed him in last year’s surprise spring success of Disturbia. The movie’s also produced by Steven Spielberg (director of Indiana Jones and exec producer behind Transformers) & Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (writers of Transformers), so there’s probably not any reason to expect this one to be a bad movie, even if it’s not a brilliant one.
The advertising has been quite good thus far, making it seem taught and gripping and likely to draw people in. LeBeouf has a lot of on-screen charisma, and is able to mesh humor with terror and action strenght with a bit of a bumbling air. It’s not really any surprise that he’s being viewed as an up-and-coming top tier actor. He’s quickly becoming a draw in his own right. Costar Michelle Monaghan isn’t a large draw, but has appeared in a number of high profile action flicks like Mission Impossible III, The Bourne Supremacy, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Perhaps the biggest strength here is that while it’s a action thriller, it’s avoiding any of the verboten politics that have inhabited the genre of late and spelled box office poison. Last year’s The Kingdom is a prime example, and Eagle Eye should do considerably better.
Opening: $30m, Final: $85m
Miracle at St. Anna
Spike Lee is a well regarded director, regularly tackling social issues in a thoughtful manner, with a particularly strong eye towards race. What he doesn’t have is large success. Only one film of his has even passed the $50m mark, and that was the rather mainstream, but still shockingly intelligent, Inside Man from 2006.
Miracle at St. Anna is his first foray into the war film genre. It falls in with some of his themes, as the action is centered on an all-black platoon in WWII who see action in a small Italian town. There’s also a possible mystical element that’s a bit out of line for him and a multi-decade mystery that’s hinted at.
There’s no reason to believe that the quality will be missing here. In fact, there’s a fair bet that this will be a better film than Eagle Eye. However, while Inside Man was a stunning success, Lee’s history means this is more likely to be an under-the-radar film with perhaps sleeper potential. It might be good, but it’s not likely to be big.
Opening: $10m, Final: $35m
Nights in Rodanthe
This is the fourth film based on the works of author Nicholas Sparks. Earlier films include Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, and The Notebook, all of which were modest successes in the romance genre.
Romance mainstays Diane Lane and Richard Gere provide the genre starpower. It’s worth noting that romance films tend to be quite a bit more modest than romantic comedies, because there’s not nearly as much crossover appeal to get the guys in the theaters. Even so, this is star-studded between Lane, Gere, and Sparks, so there’s quite a bit of upside potential.
As a rule, romances don’t open very large, but they tend to have strong legs. It’s entirely possible that while this film won’t open as big as Eagle Eye, it may have a comparable final gross. Not likely, but possible.
Opening: $15m, Final: $60m
There’s not a whole lot out of the ordinary this September, with a few early awards hopefuls and the typical smattering of action and family fare to fill up space between the bigger August and October weekends. While 2008 has fallen behind 2007, there’s a chance that one or two of these could break out and pull the year ahead.