Box Office Awesome: The early ’09 Marathon

While the short run film that makes its movie in the first few days and little else afterwards is interesting and awesome in an academic sense, it’s rarely good news.

Well, for studios it’s not always bad news. If you assume that a given film has a maximum ceiling of business that it could get and that films probably do get that business (i.e. what a film makes is what a film should make, accounting for quality, marketing, audience taste, etc.) then a studio certainly wants the movie to make as much money up front, whent they get a lion’s share of the cut. For theater owners it’s significantly less good.

Alternatively, you can assume that any film that’s frontloaded does so because there’s a problem. Perhaps it had bad word of mouth, so people who saw it opening weekend did not inspire others to also see it. Or it had a narrow fan base that was largely sated in one weekend. Or maybe it just sucked.

Really, what everyone wants is a film with legs. The studios might prefer a film that earns $60m to have a $30m opening rather than a $10m opening. But they’d much prefer a film that opens to $30m to earn $100m than $60m.

Over the past several years, movies have tended toward frontloading. This is a combination of an incresed number of theaters, an increase in the number of screens per theater, an increase in audience knowledge before release so they’re hyped up for the opening weekend, and that many of the biggest movies in recent years have had dedicated fan bases which is more likely to turn out early (and not necessarily often.) Just consider the number of comic book movies and the behavior typical of comic book fans.

So it’s with some delight that there are films that can still surprise and pull out the old school legs. These actually aren’t super rare, especially for films that are released as counter-programming, but they do provide a nice contrast.

Consider last year’s mega-hyped box office sensation The Dark Knight. It opened massively, at almost $160m, a number that would alone have it at #4 in 2009 (and even #10 in 2008). For a movie of such size, it actually held on rather well, grossing over $530m, better than three times its opening weekend gross. You’d think that in the face of such a monolithic force, any other film would be shuffled off to the wayside. Indeed, against that opening weekend, the competitor managed just $27m. However, Mamma Mia! held on extremely well and managed over 5 times its opening gross in the end, with $144m. More than that, it absoultely raked it in worldwide, earning over $458m outside the US. (The Dark Knight managed JUST $468m outside the US.)

2009’s been a bit of an odd year, however. While the business is up, it’s up because there are a wide variety of films that are doing well. Last time we covered the sprinters, but the bigger story is the marathon runners, like Mamma Mia!.

There have been a few quiet films, like the Alex Proyas directed Knowing. It opened to a small-ish $25m, but has earned almost $80m total. Those aren’t spectacular legs, but they are decent, and it’s the second highest grossing film for distributor Summit Entertainment (which struck gold last November with Twilight.) Or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which had a soft $15m opening against Wolverine, but has passed $50m total.

There’s also a trifecta of films which opened to less than $20m but finished up north of $70m. The bromance comedy  I Love You, Man earned just shy of $18m opening weekend but has a total of $71m. And January’s canine comedy Hotel for Dogs opened just over $17m and finished with $73m. The champ here, though, is Coraline, the fantastic 3D adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella opened very softly at under $17m, but it managed to keep the money rolling and has surpassed $75m.

Those are the little films that could.

But there’s a bigger story at play. In January, a trifecta of films managed to turn on the wheels in a big way.

The first was Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s latest film (and possibly last as a lead actor.) After opening in limited release in 2008 for awards consideration, it went wide on January 9 and earned $29m. That was already a huge success for him as an actor, besting the $18m opening that Space Cowboys earned almost a decade ago. And while it didn’t earn the accolades that earlier Eastwood films have, it did display the trademark legs, and has grossed over $147m total, the highest of his career. If it does mark the end of Eastwood’s career as an actor (if not director), it’s certainly a box office high note to end on.

The second marathon success was the Kevin James comedy Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Its opening weekend was actually larger than expected, at $31m, and had already cemented the film as a success. However, the broad demographic comedy managed to turn some really lengthy tricks and has amassed over $146m total. This was probably a film the producers would have been happy to have opened to $20m and finish with $60. To defeat the expectations from the get-go and to pull in audiences in a really big way. Kevin James has certainly graduated from TV Work (The King of Queens) and playing second fiddle to big stars like Will Smith (Hitch) and Adam Sandler (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) to headline films of his own.

However, the big winner in the legs department has to be the Liam Neeson revenge flick, Taken. A product of French action uber-producer Luc Besson, this was a film that screamed low-key dump prior to its release. Like many of Besson’s films, this was a straight-up actioner. It had a modest budget and looked like it would earn a small return in worldwide revenue, perhaps breaking even compared to its budget before earning a profit on DVD. Besson’s not known for blockbusters, but rather his ability to churn out entertainment on a budget.

Warning bells were in the air when Taken staked out the final weekend in January for its release. The problem, really, is that its first Sunday fell on February 1, or as its better known: Super Bowl Sunday. The sporting uber-event takes so much of the American cultural conscience that the only films that open on the weekend are strict counter-programming. Last Year’s Hannah Montana concert movie opened against the Super Bowl, for instance.

Since Taken’s an action film, the message seemed to be that the studio didn’t have faith in it. Why release a film that’s theoretically pitched at men (and possibly older men) against an event that is pitched at the same?

However, instead of crashing and burning to a likely expected $10m open and $25m finish, Taken did something very odd. It had an opening DAY of over $9m, and was past $20m after two. It did have the predicted crash on the Sunday, but even so it managed a $24m weekend and was already considered a success. Had it followed the course of so many other films this year and tumbled quickly, nobody would have batted an eye or had a bad word to say about Taken’s business. It likely would have become a minor trivia point as that film that did okay against the Superbowl.

But there’s a difference between being an interesting piece of trivia and being a part of Box Office Awesome. Taken is definitely in the latter group. Here’s some percentages: 17%, 8%, 41%, 13%, 26%, 10%, 38%, 34%.

Those are the percentage drops for the next eight weeks after that opening weekend, covering the first two months that Taken was in the theaters. When you go two months and your biggest drop is 41% (and that was after a holiday weekend), you’ve got some amazing legs. Taken was in the top 10 of the box office for all of those nine weeks, and while it started to tail off more at the end (and afterwards, once it dropped out of the top 10), the staying power was tremendous, something rarely seen in this day and age.

The final tally for Taken is just shy of $145m, slightly lower than both Gran Torino and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but considering the lower opening weekend, it’s had the best legs of any of the movie so far this year. While it’s only had the sixteenth largest opening weekend (just barely larger than the opening take of Knowing), it’s got the sixth highest total gross. Movies that open this softly and go onto have high grosses are usually relegated to the holiday season, particularly mid-to-late December launches. Very few of them managed to do what Taken did without the benefit of a large holiday boost or two. While Taken did receive a bit of a boost over President’s Day, that pales in comparison to the benefit of having one of the big three holidays (Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas) happen early in a movie’s run.

For a little actioner that managed to take it’s dumping-ground release date and turn out what will probably be the most impressive box office run of the year, Taken is most definitely Box Office Awesome

Box Office Awesome: The Early ’09 Sprint

To say that 2009 has been a heap of awesome box office is a massive understatement. It’s running no less than 14% ahead of any previous year on record and while it’s only been holding stead against 2008 and has been losing a bit of ground against 2007, it’s still running almost half a billion dollars ahead of any previous year.

But awesome is not created equal. Just this weekend, with the Memorial Day holiday and the traditional “start of summer” has seen two films enter the marketplace and both posting numbers that would be large without context but are somewhat disappointing in practice. WB’s attempt to salvage the Terminator franchise seems like it’s doomed to shoot under the 2003’s Rise of the Machines. And while the new Smithsonian entry in the Night at the Museum franchise is going to open tops in the box office, it’s not likely to reach the much vaunted and desired heights of its predecessor.

It’s actually been the story the entire year: the films with hype and large expectations have generally disappointed. Angels and Demons opened $30m less than The Da Vinci Code and looks like it’s going to be the victim of Prince Caspian syndrome. Wolverine opened large (biggest of the year), but is barely going to double the opening take when all is said and done. And the incredibly hyped and heavily promoted entry into the increasingly valuable March box office, Watchmen, had a large $55m opening and didn’t even double that in the end.

So, if the top of the line films aren’t satisfying, what is? Well, there are some films that are at least meeting expectations. Dreamworks’ latest animated entry, Monsters vs. Aliens has done boffo business and will probably finish up just shy of $200m. A sequel is already in the works (and possibly a TV offshoot.) Likewise, Star Trek has wowed audiences and critics and will soon pass MvA as the biggest film of the year. Between those two alone, Paramount has already had a very nice year, and their big entry, Transformers, is still to hit in late June.

But one studio and two films alone don’t make a great year. What has made this a great year, a year of Box Office Awesome that we can only hope continues is the huge spate of films that have surprised.

What’s really awesome about these surprises is that they have come in two wildly divergent trends. On one hand you’ve got the films that have followed the increasing trend where the bulk of businesss has happened during the opening weekend. While there’s top of the line entries like Wolverine and Watchmen (and possibly Terminator Salvation, but we’ll have to wait and see), a number of others have followed suit.

There’s the Hannah Montana movie, of course, which managed to encourage tweens and parents to drop $32m in one weekend, a large 42% of the current tally. Or Tyler Perry’s latest, Madea Goes to Jail, which earned $41m in three days, an even bigger 45% of the final.

Then there’s Fast and Furious, the fourth installment in the road racing franchise which brings back the original stars. Considering the response to the third, jokes were abound when Universal decided to shift the release date from the cushy summer confines of June to early April, often a box office dead zone.

Things paid off, however, as it pulled in over $70m in three days, shutting up critics of the move and possibly encouraging Hollywood to push summer forward another month. It didn’t stick around long, though, as the opening accounts for over 46% of its $153m total.

However, while all of these films are impressive, they don’t hold a candle to the king of one weekend wonders. Actually, in this case, it’s more of a one day wonder.

I give you Friday the Thirteenth.

The horror franchise reboot opened to a massive $19m on its titular day in February. The prospects looked good at that point for it to pull in some massive business: it had both Valentine’s Day and the four day President’s Day weekend to bolster its business.

However, the Saturday gross fell over 25%. Sunday saw a drop over over 50% and it finished the three day opening weekend just north of $40m, barely twice its opening day. The actual holiday boosted Monday saw another drop above 50% and it finished the long weekend at under $44m.

Still, at this point things were looking fine. Even if it saw large drops in the coming weekends, it should finish up with around $80m. We could make jokes about how it saw almost a quarter of its business in one day and have a laugh while Platinum Dunes took their massive haul all the way to the bank, right?

Well, it did see large drops. Incredibly large drops. The second weekend take was under $8m, a drop of over 80%. Never had a film that large dropped so much. The third weekend saw a drop of over 53%. That would be, in fact, the lowest percentage drop in its first seven weekends. The film was already out of the top ten at that point and after hitting $40m in three days it took another eighteen to get to $60m.

The final tally for the slasher flick is just $65m. The opening weekend accounted for over 62% of this total.

The movie landscape is changing for sure. Even a year ago, we’d have laughed at the idea of big films, #1 films earning more than half their gross in the opening weekend, but it’s already happened twice this year and there are a number of close calls.

Moreover, we’re seeing films that are extremely frontloaded in the opening weekend itself. Friday the Thirteenth isn’t even the most notable in this regard. Hannah Montana fell 40% between Friday and Saturday, but managed to rebound rather well in weekend 2.

Perhaps in the future, if the theater doesn’t disappear entirely, we’ll start to get films that really do become one-day events.

It’s perhaps a bit troubling to consider that, but at the same time it’s something really awesome to behold.

Next time we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum: the dying breed of movie marathon runs. It will include what might be the most Awesome box office story of the year.

Box Office Awesome

Well, I fell off the regular posting wagon, mostly because as I tried trudging through my recap of November and it got longer and longer such that it was January already and I was posting a recap of the entire holiday season I realized that it wasn’t all that fun.

Seriously, November and December were two months of suck for box office news. Until Christmas Day there was a whopping one exciting box office story to speak of, and that was Twilight. This isn’t to say that the movies released during that period were bad, because Quantum of Solace was enjoyable and Bolt was pretty spectacular, but the only interesting things about the movie business was in the context of Twilight.

It’s unfortunately something I’ve come to realize as I’ve written off and on about the movie box office over the years: there is a lot of boring shit here. I’m sure there are some people who manage to get up each week and remain excited about the minutia, but I’m not one of those people. At least, I’m not anymore. I’m interested in the slightly off kilter, the surprising, and the weird.

In short, I’m interested in the Box Office Awesome.

Thankfully, 2009 is turning out to be the year of the awesome box office. And while in aggregate it’s great news for movies, with the domestic receipts for January and February both hitting record levels, the stories for the individual films are more interesting to me.

But, since it’d be remiss to not finish out 2008, there’re two awesome stories of the holidays.

Twilight Crushes the Competition

Last August, if you’d told someone, anyone, that Quantum of Solace would disappoint such that it wasn’t going to be the biggest film of November, they might have considered and nodded thoughtfully after remembering that Madagascar 2 was on the schedule.

What they would not have believed was that a tweeny vampire flick would beat out Bond not only in the final tally but also in the opening weekend. And this after Bond had delivered the biggest opening of his extremely long and lucrative career.

Twilight was absolutely stunning, surprising just about everyone and beating even the most bullish predictions by almost $20m for the opening. It’s final tally of $191m was probably a good 50% higher than the most hopeful predictions. In three days it became Summit’s biggest film, and it managed some very strong staying power.

In comparison to the $69/$191 performance, the $67/$168 run for Quantum of Solace seems entirely pedestrian. True, Bond does have a much stronger play in the international market, earning over $400m there (for a $575m worldwide tally), but Twilight wasn’t entirely lost, and managed $375m worldwide.

That’s a large gap, to be sure, but once you take budgeting into account, Bond cost $200m to make (possibly the most expensive film ever per minute of screen time), while Twilight cost a paltry $37m, so it managed to pull in 10 times its budget in receipts. Bond would have needed to be Titanic to compete with that.

Even so, I doubt anyone involved with 007 is really disappointed. The inevitable Bond 23 will continue to build on the brand and earn another half billion easily.

The real loser in all of this is Disney, who had the misfortune of releasing their animated film Bolt up against Twilight. This is somewhat sad, as it’s a film where Disney’s animation has really come into its own again. Despite the behind-the-scenes problems and switches of director from Chris Sanders to Chris Williams, the production was top notch and it compares well with early Pixar films in quality.

However, quality isn’t everything and in the face of the vampire onslaught taking its business, Bolt managed just a slim $26m opening weekend. It managed to hold up very well in the second weekend (Thanksgiving), but saw its fortunes tumble rather hard throughout December. It’s final tally of $114m likely didn’t get much celebration, but the international cume of $173m was fairly strong.

Even so, it was the second Disney film in a row that was hurt by a bad release date, after High School Musical 3. Worse, in the realm of bragging rights, it got clobbered by Dreamworks’ Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. In the battle between the two animation giants, Dreamworks came out quite a bit stronger than Disney/Pixar. The two-hit combo of Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda earned over $1.2 billion worldwide. Bolt and WALL-E combined to a respectable, but considerably smaller $822m.

Christmas Gifts for Everyone

After an extremely poor December, which saw a succession of small opening and smaller final tallies from some big names like Keanu Reeves (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Will Smith (Seven Pounds), and Jim Carrey (Yes Man), the box office bounced back in a big way on Christmas Day.

There was the big budget award bait The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Disney produced Adam Sandler kidpic Bedtime Stories, Tom Cruise as a Nazi, Frank Miller’s solo directoral debut with The Spirit, and a film about a Owen Wilson’s dog.

While Beverly Hills Chihuahua should have told us not to bet against our canine brethren, I think I just got done saying how Bolt did not deliver the goods. So it’s probably not too much to say that Marley and Me was a big surprise. It managed a commanding $14m on Christmas Day and followed up with $36m for it’s weekend opening. A strong performance through the end of the year and into January propelled the dramady to $148m domestic, and it even managed over $70m internationally. (Non-Americans don’t seem to have quite such a love affair with cinematic dogs.)

However, this wasn’t a feast for one dog, as both Bedtime Stories and Benjamin Button managed very similar opening numbers, earning over $10m on opening day and finishing out their four day frame with around $38m. They diverged a bit from there, as the Sandler pic managed to hold on well for another weekend or two before tailing off around $110m (and had nearly $100m internationally). Benjamin Button took a slightly longer road as it piled on critical awards and finished with $127m in the US, but also beat the double century mark outside the states.

But wait, there’s more! The Bryan Singer directed, Tom Cruise starring Valkyrie managed to best $20m in its opening frame and finished with a respectable $83m. It also managed $109m internationally. It wasn’t quite the awards bait both Singer and Cruise probably wanted, but it did wash away a lot of the bad taste that Cruise has left in the mouth of the general public over the past few years.

It should be noted that while none of these films did spectacular business, they all did very strong business. Three of them topped the century mark, and they managed to erase a lot of the bad business that the earlier weekends in December had created. (2008 finished just barely behind 2007 in the final aggregate box office tally.) It’s hard to say who the overall winner is. Marley and Me managed a pretty strong win domestically, but it was just about  matched worldwide by Bedtime Stories. Benjamin Button did extremely well internationally, but got beat out in the awards by Slumdog Millionaire. And Tom Cruise managed to bring his career back on track. Winners all around, for the most part, but not superstars.

There’s one loser, however, and that’s The Spirit. Frank Miller’s attempt to bring Will Eisner’s classic hero to the big screen was a spectacular failure on all fronts. It looked like a rehash of Sin City, didn’t interest the fans, didn’t interest the general public, and by all accounts was terrible from start to finish. It earned under $4m on it’s opening Christmas Day, and it was all downhill from there. The final US tally of $19m was over $10m behind the OPENING of Sin City. The worldwide haul of $38m doesn’t look that great, either.

Those are the awesome box office stories from late 2008. Next up I’ll tackle some doozies form the first few months of 2009.

October Movie Recap

It’s possible the Saw franchise has damaged October horror movies. This year there were only two non-Saw entries, and one of those was a low-budget teen horror film along the lines of The Covenant. Will October recover to reclaim its Halloween genre?

Of course due to a quirk in the calendar, it is possible studios just considered it a bad year to release horror films.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Prediction: $25m open, $75m final

Actual: $29m open, $92m current, $95m final

Leading off the month was the success of Disney’s talking dogs. This is a surprise in multiple ways, possibly mostly because the reviews were not completely negative. For films like this, a middling response can be considered a victory.

As is becoming typical for Disney’s fall live action releases, this played very strong and had some pretty good legs. After the opening it seemed like it would get past the century mark, but it won’t quite be able to make it. Even so, this is a big victory. International totals aren’t very high, but it’s played rather well in Mexico.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Prediction: $15m Open, $50m Final

Actual: $11m Open, $31m Final

It seems it’s already been pulled from theaters. This isn’t quite as strong as I expected, but for an indie film on a $10m budget, this is very good and helps cement Michael Cera’s status as one of the biggest young stars in Hollywood.

There’s some question about how long he can keep playing the slightly awkward geeky guy as he gets older, but for now he’s well set to continue at least through the next year. He’s starring with Jack Black in The Year One, a Judd Apatow produced comedy set in biblical times. He’s also set to star as the titular character in the film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim, directed by Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). And there’s another indie turn as he leads in Youth in Revolt, a dark comedy about a sex-obsessed teenager. Finally, there’s some movement toward making a feature film extension of Arrested Development, where Cera first became a star.

This wasn’t quite Juno take two, but it was still respectable.

Appaloosa

Prediction: $4m Open, $12m Final

Actual: $5m Open, $20m Final

In contrast to the expectations of most films released, Appaloosa has played very well. It’s another entry to prove that westerns remain a solid niche for films. They aren’t likely to break out any time soon, but if the budgets are kept reasonable, they can be quietly profitable. In this case, it cost $20m to make and will be turning a nice profit once it hits the home video market.

An American Carol

Prediction: $5m Open, $10m Final

Actual: $3.6m Open, $7m Final

As far as predicting that the final tally would be about double the opening, I was spot on. This was a bit weaker than expected, but at this level it’s not really significant. Against a budget of $20m, this isn’t too bad of a loss, but it’s certainly not likely to get that back in any short order.

Perhaps most notable is that Bill Maher’s Religulous, a decidedly liberal film, opened on the same weekend on less than one third the number of screens and made just a couple hundred thousand less for the weekend. It’s also had better legs and has earned over $12m. Plus it only cost $2.5m to make

Flash of Genius

Prediction: $3m Open, $10m Final

Actual: $2.3m Open, $4.2m Final

Apparently this was out of theaters within a month. Greg Kinnear continues his streak as an actor respected for his talents but with absolutely no drawing power for audiences. He’ll probably need to shift his career to providing supporting roles. He’s doing just that next year in The Green Zone, with Matt Damon and Amy Ryan. Unfortunately, that film is set in Iraq, which is another box office non-starter.

Blindness

Prediction: $5m Open, $15m Final

Actual: $1.9m Open, $3.3m Final

Another lackluster opening. In strong contrast to Flash of Genius or An American Carol, however, this one has played relatively strongly internationally, earning almost $12m. Even so, it’s got to be a disappointment compared to the $25m budget.

Quarantine

Prediction: $15m Open, $30m Final

Actual: $14m Open, $32m Final

Against a budget of just $12m, this is a nice success for Sony’s Screen Gems. It had no stars, but the Blair Witch-esque advertising helped it play very well. It’s likely that audiences considered it fresh and inviting which helped cement the success.

As is typical with these sorts of viral films, the legs were almost non-existant. Even so, I doubt anyone involved was disappointed with this result.

Body of Lies

Prediction: $20m Open, $60m Final

Actual: $13m Open, $39m Final

Despite the prestige of the names involved, Body of Lies couldn’t overcome the Gulf War movie syndrome. Reviews were lackluster, citing the problems with a shiny but soulless espionage thriller that feels very convoluted at times.

The budget for this was a large $70m. The international receipts push the worldwide total above $80m, so it’s not likely that this will lose a ton of money, but it still has to be extremely disappointing for everyone involved.

Also, given the way just about every film set in the modern Middle East has played, it would probably be wise for Hollywood to give up on the concept for a while, no matter who is involved. Body of Lies probably had the highest profile stars and director yet for such a film, and it did nothing.

The Express

Prediction: $20m Open, $70m Final

Actual: $5m Open, $10m Final

Ultimately, trying to pitch a sports drama about overcoming long odds is fine, but doing it by focusing on someone who never played in the NFL and mostly just leaves audiences wondering “Who?” isn’t a recipe for success.

This is a bit disappointing, because Ernie Davis’ story is amazing and compelling. However, ultimately he’s just a minor blip in sports history and not likely to get a big response except from a niche audience.

Had this just been a small indie film, this would be a perfectly fine result. In fact, they probably could have played it as a platform release to try and build up momentum. Unfortunately, there’s a $40m cost attached, and it’ll take a long time to turn that around.

City of Ember

Prediction: $15m Open, $50m Final

Actual: $3m Open, $8m Final

Given the much higher profile and accessible family fare like Beverly Hills Chihuahua this isn’t terribly surprising. However, this is yet another lackluster adaptaion of a children’s book. The producers of Coraline are likely getting quite worried.

It’s also more bad news for Walden Media. In fact, this is the worst performance for the production studio, earning less than either Hoot or The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. To add to the pain, City of Ember cost $55m to make, and even with international reciepts, it’s only earned around $12m. This is an expensive miss. Given how poorly Prince Capsian did, there have to be some grave concerns about future films from the brand.

Of course there is some good news. Not with Ember, but with Walden. Journey to the Center of the Earth exceeded expectations in a grand manner, and the international take for Prince Caspain is a very healthy $278m. That’s still down from the $450m that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe earned, but it’s enough to take off the sting.

What is perhaps the biggest concern is that for the most part, book adaptaions just don’t take off. They can be profitable, but the expectations need to be set appropriately. Budgets can’t be that large, and unless there is a very large and active fanbase, any projections should be well tempered. Unless you’ve got an extremely hot property like Harry Potter or Twilight, the only sure way to get a film to break out seems to be to disassociate it with the book connection. Witness how well Shrek and Night at the Museum did. It’s likely that few of the audience members were there because they liked the book.

Max Payne

Prediction: $25m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $17m Open, $40m Current, ~$41m Final

In comparison to similar titles, this is actually quite strong. It’s a similar haul to the first Resident Evil in 2002 and last year’s Hitman, both of which arguably had stronger release dates. It’s not quite as high as some films with a similar feel, such as Constatine, but in the realm of lower-budget action flicks, this is actually pretty good. My prediction was a bit too bullish, in retrospect.

This is also considerably stronger than star Mark Wahlberg’s We Own the Night, which opened on a similar weekend in 2007. That one finished with slightly more than $28m. It’s not that this is a spectacular result, but it’s not bad, given everything involved. And with a budget of $35m and an overseas gross that matched the domestic take, Max Payne will turn a nice little profit. For a film basically at the level of The Transporter series, this is quite good.

Next year Wahlberg has two high profile flicks. The sequel to The Italian Job is slated to finally come out (likely in the summer), and in December he’s starring in Peter Jackson’s next film, The Lovely Bones. In both cases, he stands a strong chance to pass the century mark.

Sex Drive

Prediction: $20m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $3.6m Open, $8.4m Final

I vastly overstated how effective Summit Entertainment would be at getting the word out for this film. Of course at this point, all of the distributor’s films have been completely overshadowed by the success of Twilight.

With a worldwide haul of $11m and a budget of $19m, this is in the red at the moment, but could see a profit on video. Or cable.

The Secret Life of Bees

No prediction

Actual: $11m Open, $37m Current, ~$38m Final

This was a bit of a surprise success, snagging #3 for the weekend after Max Payne and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. It played very well with a sorely underserved demographic: African American women.

As is typical for films targeting African Americans, this played very weakly internationally, but it only cost $11m to make, so it’s already earned a tidy profit for Fox Searchlight.

W.

No Prediction

Actual: $11m open, $26m Final

I’m rounding the opening weekends to the nearest million. The Secret Life of Bees had $10,527,000 while W. was at $10,505,000, an incredibly close gap.

For director Oliver Stone, always at home with controversy, this is a bit of a disappointment. His three previous films earned more, two of them above $70m. Even the reviled Alexander managed to gather up $34m.

In the case of W., it’s likely that this was a poor release date. Given how much political fervor existed in October, adding a politically charged film wasn’t going to take off. There was so much emotional investment in the presidential race this year that anyone who went to see a movie wanted some escape.

On one hand, you’ve got people who are apologetic to Bush and don’t want to see a film critical of him by a liberal like Stone. On the other you’ve got people who are already critical of Bush and don’t want to spend a couple hours watching his life on screen. In a few years, this might be an interesting film to check out, once people have had a bit of distance.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Prediction: $35m Open, $90m Final

Actual: $42m Open, $89m Current, ~$92m Final

And here we have probably the weirdest box office run ever. There’s such a confluence of events that came together to effect this run, both internal and external, that I’m sure that HSM3 will go down as one of the most unique box office stories of all time. The fact that my final prediction was that close is amazing.

To start, this is probably the first time that a direct to TV/video movie has ever had a theatrical sequel. I actually predicted, after the success of the first film for Disney, that HSM2 would get a big screen release. This didn’t happen, though, and Disney reaped the rewards as over 30m people checked in for the opening weekend premier. Had all of those people gone to the opening weekend of the third film, it would have been vying with The Dark Knight for the biggest opening weekend of all time.

Clearly that didn’t happen. The opening weekend was still very strong, but somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t the biggest in October’s history. Both Scary Movie 3 and Shark Tale top it. This is despite having a very dedicated fanbase and almost no competition. At this point, some people began to question Disney’s release strategy for the film.

Even so, with an opening like that, it seemed like HSM3 could cruise to some supremely strong heights. And in a normal year, it probably would have. But here’s where the story gets weird.

After four weekdays of lackluster businss due to school and whatnot, it was heading into its second weekend on Halloween Friday. Expectations were high as competition was still non-existant and Musicals tend to hold up well. Mamma Mia! dropped less than 40% in its second frame this summer.

But that Friday was killer. HSM3 earned just $1.6m, a 90% drop from its opening day. With an established fanbase, a large Friday to Friday drop is expected, but in most cases, this would be something in the 60% range. 90% is unprecedented. For a film to do that, it would have to be completely hated and abandoned. Like Gigli. Actually Gigli only dropped 85%, so it actually did better than HSM3.

But High School Musical is well loved by its fans. The third film is no different. On the second Saturday, it bounced up about 400% to just over $8m. This was down less than half of the business from the first Saturday and looked much more normal. The second Sunday was similar.

So what happened here? Halloween on a Friday. For movies, it absolutely sucks. It eats up the box office like nothing else because kids who might be going to films are instead going to parties and whatnot. In the case of HSM3, it’s entirely likely the intended audience was out costumed as the members of the cast on Friday. Then they turned around and went to the movie again on Saturday.

What’s really weird is that Disney should know this. Halloween last fell on a Friday in 2003. Disney released Brother Bear that year and after a week in limited release, they chose to go wide with it on November 1, a Saturday. This seemed to turn out rather well as it earned about $20m in two days and went onto finish with $85m.

Had HSM3 gotten a normal Friday for its second weekend, it probably would have earned another $5m or so. As it stands, it got an incredibly weird weekend where the Friday to Weekend ratio was over 9. That NEVER happens.

Were it just the Halloween weekend, HSM3 would be the victim of a strange quirk in the calendar, and people would be wondering why Disney made such a release date decision. But it doesn’t stop there.

After the second weekend, it had a relatively soft drop and its second Monday was just 21% down from the first. Then the second Tuesday happened and it shot up to almost $2m. The first Tuesday it’d earned under $1.2m, so it beat that by a healthy margin. It also beat the vastly depressed second Friday by a good $300,000.

As a best guess, Election Day had a bunch of adults dropping their kids off at the movie theater before going to vote. Or a bunch of Obamaniacs choosing to go see a film in celebration after they voted. Or something. It’s not entirely unprecedented, as Brother Bear jumped 10% on the Election Tuesday, but that was also 2003, and off year for voting. In 2004 Election Day fell on a Thursday. Shark Tale jumped about 35% that day.

On the Wednesday the 5th, the film fell by 70% to just over half of its Monday take. But then on Thursday it received another positive bump of 34%. Given how similar this is to the Shark Tale bump on the first Thursday in November, I’m not sure we can attribute the latter’s jump on that day to the Election. Then on the third Friday, HSM3 rose to $2.5m, further proving how bad Halloween is on a Friday.

Surely, at this point it would turn into a normal film and have its standard drops each week. Such is not the case. On November 11, a week after Election Day, it had another absurd bump, this time of 80% over Monday the 10th. It was down just 15% Tuesday to Tuesday, because of… Veterans Day. It’s not really much of a holiday, all things considered, but apparently people decided the way to celebrate was to go see kids singing about school.

And after Veterans Day, it seemed that, yes, it finally has settled down to a normal box office run.

Unfortunately, as strange and interesting as High School Musical 3’s run has been, there’s probably not a lot to learn from it, at least in box office comparisons. It’s such a wide outlier in so many ways that finding a comparable movie in the future will be nigh impossible.

But it seems rather clear that Disney left a lot of money on the table with the release. The fact that they lost about $5m on Halloween is clear, but given the size of the fanbase, a $90m haul has to be a bit disappointing. Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, and Enchanted all had a similar audience demographic and each managed to get past $100m easily. Of course, they all had much better release dates.

Disney probably could have earned a similarly higher amount by waiting until Thanksgiving, like Enchanted. Of course that would have had the problem of crossing over with Twilight, which plays to a similar audience. And it would have necessitating moving Bolt elsewhere in the schedule. But as nice as Bolt’s legs might be, it’s likely that High School Musical 3 would have earned more on the same release date.

Of course, in the end here’s a film that cost $11m to make and it’s going to gather almost nine times that domestically and already has over twenty times that world-wide. That’s not to mention the huge amount it’s going to earn once it shows up on DVD and the Disney Channel. We may not see a High School Musical 4, and Disney might have lost about $50m by their release choices, but it’s not likely to hurt them in the end.

Saw V

Prediction: $25m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $30m Open, $57m Final

Despite the same release date and a similar budget to High School Musical 3, there’s much less that’s interesting about the box office run for Saw V. It’s interesting in comparison only.

To compare some numbers:

$19m, $32m, $34m, $32m, $30m

Those are the opening weekends of the five Saw films. You’ve got the first, which came out as an October surprise in 2004, the second and third building on the popularity, then the fourth and fifth tailing off from the peak but still doing respectably.

$55m, $87m, $80m, $63m, $57m

Those are the final tallies for the five Saw films. You’ve got the first surprise success, a huge jump to the second, and then declining grosses therafter. The extremely large drop between the third and fourth is especially telling. It’s also worth noting that despite having an opening weekend over $10m higher, the fifth film only outgrossed the first by $2m.

33, 36, 42, 50, 53

Those are the percentage of the entire box office run that happened in the opening weekend. And Saw V is terrible in this regard. It’s abundantly clear that audiences are tiring of the franchise. The fans come out (in decreasing numbers) for the opening weekend and then they get abandoned.

At this rate, when Saw X comes out in 2013, we should expect it to open to $20m and finish with $30m.

While it seems likely that Lionsgate will abandone the franchise before that happens, consider that the films are incredibly cheap. Saw V, even with a bad box office run managed to earn five times its budget domestically. There will be a Saw VI next year and probably many more to come.

Pride & Glory

Prediction: $10m Open, $30m Final

Actual: $6m Open, $16m Final

As I noted in my prediction, this was lost in the shuffle. both HSM3 and Saw V opened stronger than predicted, and this had less chance to break in. The legs were actually relatively strong, but that’s a small consolation.

Pride & Glory cost $30m to make, so it’s not only the most expensive film released this weekend, but also the only one to lose money.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Prediction: $5m Open, $15m Final

Actual: $0.4m Open, $1.1m Final

It seems likely that the combination of High School Musical 3 and the strong release this film had in 2007 combined to cancel out any interest this year.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Prediction: $25m Open, $70m Final

Actual: $10m Open, $31m Current, ~$31m Final

The Halloween release date did have an effect, depressing the opening Friday despite an established (if small) fanbase for director Kevin Smith.

However, a larger problem arose due to the subject matter of the film. Some venues chose not to allow advertising of it, and some theaters chose not to show it. This led to some haphazard attempts to keep interest up and get the word out. They called the film just “Zack and Miri” in some cases, although it’s questionable how much of an effect removing the “Porno” from the title can really have. If people know what it’s about, they’re already decided, and if they don’t, then they won’t really enjoy being surprised.

For Smith, this is actually his largest film to date, just barely beating out Dogma. He’s actually been remarkably consistent since that film was released as all of his have earned between $24m and $31m. Whether he manages to break out at any point will mostly depend on if he can garner any reception outside of his core audience. His next film is apparently not going to be a comedy, so that may help.

While this is a success for Smith, it probably isn’t for star Seth Rogen. After his huge success last year with Knocked Up and Superbad, he looked prime to hit it big this year. His voice work has done well in Horton Hears a Who and Kung Fu Panda, but neither of those really showcased him, and the celebrity names usually don’t matter for animated entries. Pineapple Express did respectably well this summer, but it was a bit of a drop compared to the 2007 pair.

Zack and Miri isn’t the sort of business he’d like to establish if he wants to be a comedy leading man. While all of the big comedy names have hit snags from time to time, they’ve tended to do so much later in their careers. Rogen doesn’t have the track record to keep getting projects if he can’t keep the dollars coming in consistently.

He’s got two more comedies next year. Observe and Report has him teaming up with Anna Faris who’s coming off of a surprise success in The House Bunny. And next July he’s in Funny People with Adam Sandler and directed by Judd Apatow. That one, at least, should be safely large.

The Haunting of Molly Hartley

Prediction: $10m Open, $20m Final

Actual: $5m Open, $13m Final

If you’re going to release a PG-13 horror film, don’t do it on Halloween Friday.

Overall

A mostly forgettable month, business-wise, with a number of bad to moderate performances. Disney comes away as the big winner with Beverly Hills Chihuahua and High School Musical 3.

December Movie Preview

Hot on the heels of a scorching November comes the big question. As 2008 enters its final month, can it remain ahead of the record tally of 2007? Currently, 2008 is about $150m ahead, which isn’t small, but amounts to less than a 2% difference between the years. However, the big issue is whether the December releases will remain strong enough. Last year, the final month was extremely strong, earning about a billion dollars under the lead of films like I Am Legend, National Treasure, and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Can this month do the same? We shall have to find out.

Weekend of December 5

Punisher: War Zone

Comic book movies are incredibly lucrative. In fact, there probably isn’t a single IP generating industry that does better as a whole. That includes the movie industry itself. Led by the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, and Iron Man, top tier comic films will command large budgets and get even larger commercial (and sometimes critical) response. Even lower tier entries, without name brand recognition, can do very well. Wanted did some fairly spectacular business this summer, and even Hellboy has managed a quietly successful franchise.

What is perhaps odd about comic books is that they’re given some incredible chances in the realm of film. Usually if something doesn’t work out, it’s dead and gone. Book authors live in fear of the chance that a bad film will be made of their work, because it means they may not get those regular checks for rights securement. A bad movie means that ALL movies based on that source are likely to be bad, and should be avoided.

Not so for comic books. If there’s a misstep, not only does the sub-industry keep trucking, but there’s now a pervasive effort to shrug off the bad film and just start again, within a few years. After Ang Lee’s Hulk disappointed, Universal shrugged it off and went ahead with a re-start to the franchise (after just one film), and had the enjoyable (but about equally successful) Incredible Hulk this year. Superman Returns didn’t get the sort of response that WB and DC wanted, so they’re doing another franchise reboot.

And that brings us to Punisher: War Zone. The previous Punisher film starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta had a miniscule budget and a horrid response, both critically (28% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), and commercially (just $33m domestic). Ironically, because of the small budget, it’s actually a profitable film.

Due to the response, Punisher: War Zone is a complete restart to the franchise. Like The Incredible Hulk, little connection to the previous film remains except for the title. Instead of Thomas Jane, the titular character is being played by Ray Stevenson. German martial artist turned film director Lexi Alexander has the reigns behind the camera. And the budget has been increased from a paltry $15m to a massive $35m.

To say that the deck is still stacked against Frank Castle is a bit of an understatement. On one hand, expectations are justifiably low. As The Incredible Hulk showed, restarts don’t have any strong likelihood of improving on the predecessor. In addition, the release date here is terrible. The weekend following Thanksgiving is bad enough for holdovers (which routinely lose half of their business or more, even when well received), but it’s abysmal for new films. The strongest opener on the post-Thanksgiving frame is The Last Samurai, and it only managed $24m, even being in the time when Tom Cruise was a major draw (i.e. pre-couch). It’s notable that no other films are getting a wide release this weekend.

In addition to that, the news surrounding the film doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Rumors abounded that director Alexander had been taken off the project and that the film would be reshot and edited to get a PG-13 rating. These were probably untrue, but nothing seems to have removed that taint from the film.

It’s possible that Punisher: War Zone will be an enjoyable action film, but at best it’s looking forward to cult status and profits from the eventual DVD release. It isn’t likely to spawn a direct sequel and since it’s potentially the third failed start for the character in film (there was an ’89 film starring Dolph Lundgren), it’s unlikely that Frank Castle will get another chance.

As a bonus though, The Wire’s Dominic West is playing the villain.

Opening: $10m, Final: $30m

Weekend of December 12

The Day the Earth Stood Still

If the restart is a film with a uniquely comic book association, the remake has a long cinematic history. That history is not one that is particularly well regarded, especially as the cries of Hollywood’s lack of originality abound. It’s not surprising to see why remakes are popular. The industry is full of people who got into film because they love film, and specific films in particular. At a certain point in their careers, they’ll often want to try and bring those beloved classics up to date with modern technology.

The artistic success of these efforts is often questioned. However, remakes are often commercially successful, and the sci-fi variety that The Day the Earth Stood Still represents has been especially so of late. War of the Worlds did spectacular business in the summer of 2005, but the closest analogue is going to be last December’s I Am Legend.

The similarities between the two films abound. Both are based on short stories that were made into well regarded films that spoke to a Cold War audience and have been tweaked to speak to the post-9/11 audiences of today. Both are headlined by successful action stars who are both making more forays into dramatic roles. And both have a similarly gripping ad campaign that speaks of some dark gothic sensibilities and probing questions about our humanity.

Of course, it’s not a perfect match. For one, while Keanu Reeves is successful, he’s not at Will Smith’s level, but then nobody is. Reeves isn’t nearly as well received, often garnering jokes that various inanimate objects would suffice just as well. With that said, he is a draw and at least in this case, his flat delivery may serve the role of Klaatu particularly well.

Also, I Am Legend was a rather understated film, mostly showcasing Will Smith’s isolation in a quiet New York and playing up the creepy thriller tension. In comparison, The Day the Earth Stood Still is more of an effects-fest, still creepy, but the alien-ness of it is being pushed.

Overall, the prognosis for this should be rather good. At the time of release, Quantum of Solace will have been in theaters for a month and no other top tier action films will have been released. In comparison to Transporter 3 and Punisher: War Zone, this is a release that’s designed to take the #1 spot.

In addition, there aren’t any strongly comparable films being released for the rest of the month. As such, it should enjoy the comfortable holds that December usually grants films.

Opening: $45m, Final: $200m

Delgo

There’s a definite tiering system to computer animated films. At the top the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks develop films that garner much critical success, they also have large budgets and envelope-pushing technology almost at every turn. The industry has come a long way since those were the only two players, but they still are the names that everyone looks towards.

At the bottom are a number of smaller studios which have realized that the technology exists now to do computer animation inexpesively and still deliver some impressive imagery. This isn’t particularly new, as even back in the 90s there were attempts to deliver lower budget features that still delivered. The most notable of these is likely Blue Planet, an unfinished film made by Rainbow Studios (later acquired by THQ), that generated some early internet excitement with its anti-Pixar trailer that had White Zombie’s ‘More Human than Human’ as the musical track.

It wasn’t until Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius hit the theaters that lower-budget fare has garnered an effective box office response. Since then, the number of such releases has grown to the point that it’s clear that the pasta-against-the-wall strategy is at work from a number of studios. While Pixar, Dreamworks, and Fox’s Blue Sky Studios are seen as reliable, quality entertainment, the other choices are often a bit hit-and-miss. Even animation stalwart Disney hit a rough patch with outsourced offerings like Valient and The Wild before it seemed to find its own CGI feet in-house.

So what does this all mean for Freestyle releasing’s Delgo. It probably highlights a number of ways that the successful CGI offerings have managed to separate themselves from the pack. In that Delgo is doing just about everything wrong.

First, realistic animation isn’t really a good idea. Despite some amazing advances in technology, using computers to create humans still leaves a lot to be desired, looking a bit creepy to audiences. Despite dumping millions into Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the film flopped (and took the fledgling Square animation studio with it), with the primary criticism being that it didn’t look real enough.

The smart studios have realized that not only is realism an as yet unrealistic dream for computer animation, but they can even bypass it by focusing on subjects that don’t need to look human (as in Toy Story), or by using stylized humans to bypass the realism issue entirely (as seen in The Incredibles and a number of other films.)

For Delgo, the characters aren’t human, but they seem to have a very realistic style to them, and as such, the inhuman designs actually heighten the problem. They don’t seem like characters you can relate to and empathize with.

Second is that using animation as a cost-saving measure works best if you’re doing it in the right way. Spending your budget to develop a lavish-otherworldly setting isn’t nearly as effective as using it to do the few things you can’t necessarily pull off in real life. Call it The Simpsons rule of animation: you can do anything, and it doesn’t really increase your cost much in the end.

Delgo, like a number of previous films, has plunged assets into developing a lush and vibrant alien world, but one that’s entirely without life. The still images look good, but once in motion, they don’t deliver.

And third, but possibly most important, is the primary reason that Pixar especially (and to a lesser extent Dreamworks) is successful: they make good movies and then have excellent marketing. It’s critical that the film is advertised as a quality way to pass a couple hours, and this is especially true because it’s not possible to rely on the wow-factor of the medium to get an audience.

This doesn’t mean that the film needs to be great, or that the advertising needs to saturate, but it’s important that the story and characters are strong and inviting and that the trailers sell the film’s strengths.

Delgo completely fails in this, by having a tepid trailer that tries to play up a weak science-fiction story (another iffy area for animation in general) with some cliched character archetypes. What’s worse is that the production quality of the trailer left a lot to be desired, with sound issues abound.

What Delgo brings to mind is 2003’s Kaena: The Prophecy, a luke-warm French/Canada offering that can be forgiven for its weakness by being a relatively early computer animated offering. And by being foreign. Delgo doesn’t have that excuse (although it is from an Indie studio.) It is also all but guaranteed to outgross Kaena, if only because it’s showing up on more than three theaters. Still, Kaena’s $2,000 opening on one theater gives us a good benchmark. Delgo will probably get a similar average across its entire opening.

Opening: $5m, Final: $15m

Weekend of December 19

Seven Pounds

For the third straight year, Will Smith has a high profile December release. And even though he’s mostly known as a summer stalwart, he’s no stranger to Holiday releases. Enemy of the State earned $100m a decade ago and five years earlier he was in the ensemble Six Degrees of Separation.

Of course there’s also 2001’s Ali and 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, but both of those did so poorly it’s possible Smith got a little gun-shy about the winter releases. But all of that’s changed. Since Ali’s release, every film he’s headlined has easily suprassed $100m. And all but one have opened above $40m.

That one exception is The Pursuit of Happyness, his December effort from 2006. The film was a large departure for him, as he eschewed his action and comedy mainstays for a straight-up drama. Despite the $26m opening, the legs for the film were spectacular as it played strongly not just through the end of the year, but well into the winter months. The final tall of $163m showed that Smith wasn’t limited to effects-driven extravaganzas.

This is important because even though I Am Legend delivered Smith’s largest opening and second-largest final gross, The Pursuit of Happyness is the closest match for Seven Pounds. This is another straight-up drama that has Smith playing an everyman dealing with somewhat extra-ordinary circumstances. In fact the films have the same director in Gabriele Muccino.

The box office prospects for The Pursuit of Happyness were a bit up in the air at the time, and it seems audiences were tentative on the prospect of Smith leading a serious drama. This time around, that’s not likely to be the case, as he’s proven his chops so to speak. The opening should be larger, but the final gross may not improve upon the already solid heights that Happyness attained. In any case, Smith should push his century streak to nine films.

Opening: $40m, Final: $160m

Yes Man

Jim Carrey is an actor of contrasts. Despite being regaled as the king of Comedy for a number of years, his solo successes were usually more modest than realized. And as such, the recent bashing that he’s received is somewhat undeserved. His attempts to make a career in dramatic roles hasn’t turned out well, but even though he’s been quiet, his comedies have been remarkably consistent.

Unlike Will Smith, Carrey is a Holiday mainstay. This begain in 1994 when Dumb and Dumber hit $127m and cemented Carrey as a star. Since then he’s had the second Ace Ventura film and How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well as the less impressive Man in the Moon and The Magestic. More recently he had the back-to-back December successes of Lemony Snicket and Fun with Dick and Jane. While neither film earned critical praise, they did gross over $100m apiece.

Yes Man seems to be a bit of a return to Carrey’s larger successes where he’s an ordinary man who experiences a change that causes him to act and view the world in a different manner. Bruce Almighty is his second biggest film, and Liar Liar is his third biggest. Yes Man bears a lot of similarity to these and it’s likely that audiences will respond in a similar manner.

The concern is that audiences have moved past Carrey. While he was a strong box office draw for a very long time, he’s only had two films released since Fun With Dick and Jane. Last year’s The Number 23 (which was both a critical and commercial failure), and Horton Hears a Who, where Carrey lent his voice. It was successful, but celebrity voices aren’t necessarily a major selling point in animation.

Moreover, movies of this sort are even longer. Bruce Almighty was over five years ago, and Liar Liar was almost twelve years ago. As such, it’s probably wise to keep expectations more mild this time around.

The interesting question here is what is a bigger draw: Jim Carrey returning to his strengths, or Will Smith playing to his milder dramatic side. I think Smith has the edge in the end, but it’s possible that Carrey will open larger.

Opening: $45m, Final: $140m

The Tale of Desperaux

If Delgo is an animated film that’s doing just about everything wrong, Desperaux is one that’s at least attempting to do everything right. They’ve got a catchy, engaging story with an identifiable hero, some lushly spectacular visuals, and a very strong advertising campaign.

As the poster notes, Desperaux is a small mouse with big dreams. He has large ears and apparently no fear as he goes forth to seek adventure, save the world, and woo the (very human) princess. All this despite being sickly and weak.

This is a fairly standard fantasy with triumph of the little guy over extremely large odds, but it’s played very well here. The trailer is presented in a storybook manner, and Despereaux comes across as a classic adventure hero in the likes of Errol Flynn. Even better, the humor is spot-on, with the interplay between the humans and rodents full of amusing moments.

The cast is an ensemble of celebrity voices, as is typical for just about any non-Pixar animated offering, but with the likes of Matthew Broderick, Robbie Coltraine, and Kevin Kline (among many others), it seems fairly clear they weren’t chosen for their box office prowess but (hopefully) because they fit the roles well. Perhaps the biggest current name is Emma Watson, who plays the princess.

The source material is a novel by Kate DiCamilio, who also wrote Because of Winn-Dixie which was a mildly successful, if bland, film in 2005. Desperaux seems like it will play considerably stronger.

If there’s any big concern, it’s Charlotte’s Web. The must hyped animated adaptation in 2006 earned less than $12m over its opening weekend. It did manage to turn around and gather $82m overall, but that’s not the best reassurence. Of course there have been a number of fairly weak-opening but strong legs animated films in December. The Prince of Egypt managed $101m after a $14m opening a decade ago. The Emperor’s New Groove earned less than $10m for its opening, but earned almost $90m overall. And Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius gathered $80m after a $13m opening in 2001. To a lesser degree, Hoodwinked earned $51m after a $12m opening in 2005.

This means that even if the opening isn’t particularly strong, Desperaux can probably expect very good legs throughout the holiday season and beyond. It’s not likely to get up to Pixar or Dreamworks levels, but it should do rather well in the end.

Opening: $20m, Final: $110m

Weekend of December 26 (Films open on Thursday, December 25)

Bedtime Stories

After Will Smith, Adam Sandler is the most consistently bankable star in Hollywood. Over the past decade, he’s had nine straight comedies gross at least $100m. He’s also made a few attempts at more dramatic fare and hasn’t been critically reviled for doing so. And now he’s taking a slight change of pace with Bedtime Stories, a family-friendly fantasy adventure (although still with strong comedic elements.)

The strength of Sandler as a box office star shouldn’t be underestimated. Even though he’s not had an absolutely huge hit, his consistency is amazing. Bedtime Stories, though, has an added advantage. The closest and easiest comparison is actually Night at the Museum, which opened to $30m in December of ’06 and had a tremendous run, earning $115m by the end of the year and $250m in total.

Disney likely has similar expectations for Bedtime Stories. Sandler is a bigger star than Ben Stiller, even though Stiller has had some larger hits, such as Meet the Fockers (released just prior to Christmas in 2004). If the family friendly nature of the comedy doesn’t turn off the slightly more mature (yet juvenile) tastes of Sandler’s normal fans, there could be an amazing crossover potential which could drive Bedtime Stories beyond the heights of Night at the Museum.

If there’s a concern here, it’s probably that the crossover appeal won’t happen, or worse, that there will be a cancellation effect. If Sandler’s fans decide that this is too kiddified for them, and families decide that Sandler’s brand of humor isn’t right, it could end up doing somewhat less stellar business. However, given Sandler’s career track, that doesn’t seem incredibly likely. The success of Click! where he played a similar everyman in an odd situation should be indicative.

It’s a bit debatable whether or not Bedtime Stories has a stronger release date than Night at the Museum. While it’s opening on Christmas Day, and thus avoids the movie dead zone of Christmas Eve, Night at the Museum has the advantage of a couple days of business previous. The Christmas Day to New Years Day period is extremely strong for films, and a few days business isn’t likely to bleed off any interest, so Night at the Museum might have about $30m going in its favor here. Of course this may be mitigated by the second weekend, which falls January 2-4 this year, and may cancel out that advantage. We’ll have to see, there.

One other point of note is the competition. Night at the Museum opened against three films, none of them in direct competition. The previous weekend had three films, and while Eragon and Charlotte’s Web both could be considered competitors, they had opened considerably weaker than expected. Bedtime Stories has four other films opening, and three the previous weekend. Four of those seven may provide stronger competition.

Despite these problems, it seems very likely that Bedtime Stories will be an extremely strong film for its opening week and is likely to become the highest grossing of Adam Sandler’s career.

Opening: $40m 3-day, $50m 4-day, Final: $230m

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

For such a well-regarded director, David Fincher isn’t that successful. His six films have averaged just $60m, and only one of those has crossed the century mark. In 1995, Se7en managed to barely squeak past that while simultaneously vaulting Fincher to the spotlight. Since then, he has delivered strong performances, and even managed to create a cult favorite in Fight Club, but his biggest success was 2002’s Panic Room, which only managed $96m

It’s not too surprising then that he’s hooked up again with Brad Pitt, who starred in Se7en. Pitt isn’t quite the superstar he’s often portrayed as, but he does have some box office chops. From the release of Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, every live action, wide-release film he starred in crossed $100m until Burn After Reading earlier this year. Of course, three of those films were the ensemble Ocean’s trilogy, so really he managed to get there with Troy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

Benjamin Button is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who is born old and grows younger throughout his life. The time and placement of the story have been changed for the film, so that the titular character lives out his life throughout the 20th and into the 21st century (instead of being born in 1860.)

On sight, this seems to be a bit of an odd choice for a film. The premise is strong and interesting, to be sure, but it’s not an especially active concept. It seems more likely that there’s an attempt to please the critics and hopefully garner a number of awards rather than get audiences out in a big way. Early response seems to be positive, so this may be a good strategy. As such this may be a leggy film rather than one that opens large.

Perhaps most interesting is that the script penned by Eric Roth, who is well familiar with Christmas releases. He’s had The Good Shepard in 2006, Munich in 2005, and Ali in 2001, as well as The Postman way back in 1997. The first three films on the list were similarly in the position of desiring the awards, but are generally regarded as flawed, despite the pedigree of some people involved, notably Matt Damon, Robert DeNiro, Steven Spielberg, Will Smith, and Michael Mann. There could be some concern that Benjamin Button is going to also come across as interesting but flawed.

The opening frame should be somewhat muted, despite the Christmas boost, but it should play well through January 4, at least. If there are awards considerations, it may be have a strong performance into February.

Opening: $20m 3-day, $25m 4-day, Final: $95m ($125m if it’s a contender)

Marley and Me

Arguably the dark horse entry for the holiday weekend, this film stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, but rather than being a romantic comedy, it’s about their relationship with their dog from hell, Marley. Not that Marley’s a strongly bad dog, it just seems like he’s untrained.

There is some strength here. Dog comedies of various sorts tend to be fairly popular. Both Aniston and Wilson have fairly strong comedic chops, although in her case they tend to be of the romantic variety. There looks to be some romance here, and it will be interesting to see if there’s some crossover between the family comedy crowd looking at the dog and the romantic comedy crowd looking at the couple.

However, it’s up in the air whether or not either is able to truly draw an audience. Aniston’s biggest films are Bruce Almighty (Jim Carrey as the draw), The Break-Up (Vince Vaughn), and Along Came Polly (Ben Stiller). For Wilson, his biggest hit as a lead came in Wedding Crashers, also with Vince Vaughn. He had prominence in Night at the Museum, but that was Ben Stiller’s show. And Cars was animated, so he’s not really in play as a draw there. Even Wilson’s smaller comedies generally have him teaming up with higher profile stars such as Jackie Chan and Eddie Murphy.

If we want a comedy with Wilson as the lead, we have March’s Drillbit Taylor, which opened to just $10m and finished with $32m. That isn’t something you want to emulate in December. For Aniston, there’s Rumor Has It, which opened on Christmas Day in 2005. That happened to be a Sunday, leading to the absurdly small opening weekend of $3.5m. It managed $43m by the end of its run, but wasn’t really memorable.

Instead of the stars, we may need to look to the dog as the real lead. For comparisons, we have Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which had a surprisingly strong opening of $29m and looks to finish slightly shy of the century mark. Dogs are still popular. A more direct comparison of ‘owner with a bad dog’ would lead us to look back to the late 80s and early 90s, where Turner & Hooch and Beethoven had fairly strong, but not spectacular runs.

In all, there’s a chance Marley and Me could play fairly well. But there are some questions as to the drawing power of the stars. A bigger concern is that there’s a lot of competition for the comedy dollar. Both Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey are considerably bigger for laughs, and both will be playing strong in a big way.

Opening: $10m 3-day, $15m 4-day, Final: $75m

The Spirit

This almost has the chance to be the most contentious film released for Christmas. On one hand is the source material, which is one of the most well-regarded parts of superhero and comic history, created by one of the greatest sequential artists ever. On the other hand is the director, also well regarded in comics history and one of the greatest artists ever, but considerably divisive.

The Spirit comes from the early period of superhero comics. Created by Will Eisner in 1940 as a 7-page weekly insert in Sunday newspapers, it was a brilliant work where Eisner established a number of storytelling elements that continue to be used (or unfortunately ignored) to this day. Were that all Eisner had done, it would have been an amazing career, but he continued to produce brilliant work up until his death, even inventing the modern graphic novel. It is no accident that the most prestigious of comic book awards are named after him.

The Spirit is such a seminal work, it’s fairly surprising it hasn’t been made into a feature film before. In fact, there were a number of attempts from the early 1990s to 2005 to do just that, but until Frank Miller came on the project, little had been done. At that point, development started to show promise. Eisner was a long-time friend of Miller, so there was a high degree of hope that the resulting product would be faithful to Eisner’s vision. Additionally, from a business standpoint, it’s almost a perfect storm of the right name being on the right project at the right time.

At the moment, Frank Miller is probably the third strongest name in movies for comic books, after Marvel and Batman. The success of Sin City has led to a bit of confusion as to why the sequel hasn’t happened yet (it’s still to be determined.) More importantly, the huge surprise success of 300 has rocketed Miller as a golden boy of comics, about two decades after he hit his early huge successes actually drawing and writing the books. Having him doing his first solo writer/director work was a bit of a coup.

So on the surface, you’ve got a plumb character, great history, and combination of strong comics talent would make it seem like this is the perfect project. Where’s the contention?

Unfortunately, Frank Miller isn’t Will Eisner. Miller is amazingly talented as an artist, certainly one of the best at laying out a page, and he does a very strong pastiche of film noir techniques. It’s really no accident that the Sin City film pretty much used the comics as a shot for shot storyboard. Miller’s visual style is that strong and it works very well.

However, Eisner was a completely different artist, especially on The Spirit. Far from the brooding noir of Miller (or even the contemporary Batman of the 1940s), the Spirit is bouncing with life, humor, and color. His 7 page adventures were snappy, quick, and fun.

The two men might have been close friends, but the differences are strong. From the release of the first trailer, it was apparent that these differences had caused some issues, to say the least. The initial teaser is just a short black and white clip that seemed to suck all of the life and humor out of the original comic. Worse, the dialogue was terrifically bad, as the Spirit narrates that the city is both his mother and his lover, a combination that is disturbing, to say the least. Perhaps most telling, the end of the teaser has the title rendered in lettering that is strongly reminiscent of the Sin City logo.

Since then, the news hasn’t gotten much better. The characters all seem to be warped versions of themselves, especially the women. While it’s true that The Spirit in the comics had a lot to do with a number of sexy women, they were also strong and independent and individual. Now they’ve all been rendered as sexpots of the two standard Miller varietys: dangerous virgins, or dangerous whores.

Samuel L. Jackson is in the film as the main villain, the Octopus. This was a character who Eisner justifiably felt was so evil that he couldn’t be shown on the page. Miller couldn’t figure out a way to make that work, so he’s dressed up Jackson as a pimp in heavy make-up.

Jackson has also indicated that there is humor in the film. But more recent trailers have given the indication that it’s more slapstick than anything else. The Spirit and the Octopus have been transformed into muscle-bound super-men, which is at odds with the original nature of the book. The Spirit was originally conceived as a detective story, but Eisner added a mask because superheroes were popular at the time.

Where does this leave the film? On one hand, there’s the possibility that the fans will be strong divided over it. Some fans have already decried it or ar at least losing hope with each passing day. Others, especially those strongly dedicated to Miller, are likely still excited. How these two will interact is really a large question.

Outside of the fans is the general audience, most of whom aren’t familiar with the character. These will instead be mostly swayed by the 300 and Sin City connections. Even though both films are regarded as flawed, that’s likely to be a strong connection, especially with action crowd. Also, the competition is fairly light. The Day the Earth Stood Still is likely to be the biggest competitor, and it will be entering its third weekend at this point.

Assuming a slighlty muted fan response, the general audience reception is likely to determine the film’s success. It probably won’t play as well as 300, but given the strength of the release date, Sin City’s $74m is probably going to be an average result, at worst. If it’s well received, it could go much further. If reviews are weak or it doesn’t jump out of the gate well, it may just peter out quickly.

Opening: $25m 3-day, $30m 4-day, Final: $90m

Valkyrie (Opens December 26)

And here is the most contentious film, despite The Spirit’s best efforts. The reason for the contention is Tom Cruise, appearing here for his first major starring role since Mission: Impossible 3. That film came out just after the infamous couch incident, and Cruise’s reputation hasn’t been the same since.

He’s had to deal with an increasingly critical public, rampant mocking of his family and religion, and a lot of critical questions into the validity of his strenght of career. This has gotten to the point that even now, well before Valkyrie has been screened to critics, it is getting strongly negative reactions.

Whether or not the criticism leveled at Cruise is justified doesn’t really matter at this point. His appearance in the film is a lightning rod, and how audiences react to that will have a strong effect on the final result. On the one hand, Cruise was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. From 2000-2006, every film he starred in went on to gross at least $100m, a stretch of 7 films. He had 5 more such films in the 90s and 2 in the 80s. Additionally, Cruise’s cameo in Tropic Thunder was regarded as spectacular and hilarious. That alone may have generated a fair amount of good will toward him.

On the other hand, Valkyrie isn’t a cameo. It’s also not a comedy. This is a hard-hitting war drama about a bunch of Nazis. The subject matter isn’t likely to draw anyone in, even though it might be fascinating. Of course since it’s about a bunch of Germans, Cruise’s blatantly American accent is a bit offputting.

Behind the camera is Bryan Singer, who has done both popular and well-regarded movies, sometimes both. He got his start with The Usual Suspects, a cult surprise if there ever was one, but he’s most known for directing the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns. The trio of comic book movies has built up Singer’s geek cred, as has his production of the hit TV show House. Of course, Superman Returns hasn’t been nearly as well received as the two X-Men films, so the popular reception might be a bit cool there.

The combination of factors doesn’t lead to a rosy future for Valkyrie. With the deck stacked as it is, only an extremely strong critical reaction and serious awards consideration are likely to turn things around.

Opening: $10m, Final: $60m

Overall

December has a lot of question marks this year. It bears a fair amount of superficial similarity to 2006, but there are a lot of possibilities for the films to swing around against expectations. There are a wide number of options so just about every movie fan should have something to choose. That could go a long way to helping 2008 stay ahead of 2007.

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

September Movie Recap

Perhaps little exemplifies September more than the fact that The Accidental Husband got its release date bumped again, to sometime in 2009. This is the sort of thing which happened to Charlie Bartlett, to ill effect. It’s not really a read on the quality of the films, but there’s a very real sense that what gets released in September is somehow more disposable. Even in the case of strong performing films, they can never really overcome the second or third tier feeling.

This September? Well, let’s just see.

Bangkok Dangerous

Prediction: $10m Open, $25m Final

Actual: $8m Open, $15m Current, ~$15m Final

At some point, Hollywood will probably realize that it can’t keep bringing over talented Asian directors to make their own films but in the Hollywood way. It just doesn’t work. The past several years has seen the Asian horror genre crash and burn, especially when the original directors are brough along for the ride. And everyone bemoans the career path of John Woo. Even with the high point of Face/Off, none of his stateside work has come close to the depth or visceral enjoyment of his Hong Kong films.

This remake is really no different. Another talented Asian coming to the US and delivering a stinker. This isn’t an indication of the directoral talent, but it might not be just because of producer meddling, either. With hope it won’t unfairly malign the entire Thai film industry. Unlike Japan or Hong Kong, it doesn’t have a strong base of fan support, so there’s a chance that people will take what they’ve seen in the US and cast the same pall over the original work back at home. That would be a shame, because there are some really good Thai films.

As far as this film, though, it’s certainly in line with other shovel work from Nicholas Cage. Ultimately forgettable, it’s seen drops of at least 65% every weekend.

A suggestion: go see Killer Tattoo.

Burn After Reading

Prediction: For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t predict this. Perhaps I thought it was going to get a platform release.

Actual: $19m Open, $55m Current, ~$65m Final

The Coen Brothers’ followup to their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men has done very, very well for them. It’s clearly not as great a film, but the business has been very strong. They scored their biggest opening (and first #1), and it’s already cruised past all their other films except No Country to be their second highest grosser.

This is a bit of a turnabout for the Coens, actually. Their work history has tended to gravitate between doing limited release films that are well regarded and strong business (for the style of release), and more commercial fare that’s flawed and not as well received. If No Country for Old Men was the limited release film done good, Burn After Reading would be the flawed commercial film. Except that unlike The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty, it’s done very well for itself, despite the problems.

A good amount of credit can probably be given to the marketing department of Focus Features. Highlighting the antics of Brad Pitt did quite well to sell the film even if (upon viewing), he’s a supporting player, not the main character.

The Family that Preys

Prediction: $15m Open, $35m Final

Actual: $17m Open, $36m Current, ~$40m Final

The addition of Kathy Bates didn’t have a large effect on Tyler Perry’s latest. In fact, this is going to be slightly on the low side for him, although it’s not too out of line for expectations. Even if it’s his lowest grossing film since Daddy’s Little Girls, it’s still a massive money-maker.

Perry’s managed to make himself a cottage movie industry. He’s able to produce films at a quick rate (up to two a year), do it cheaply (I’d be amazed if any of his films have cost much more than $10m to make), and is able to consistently reap big profits. He’s probably never going to see a huge grossing-film, and might go his entire career without cracking the century mark, but that doesn’t matter. His next film is going to put his career total above $300m, and it’ll likely do so on less than $60m in total costs. Tyler Perry is gold, and even a relatively weak performance like The Family that Preys isn’t going to undermine that.

Next up has him donning the Madea fat suit again in February’s Madea Goes to Jail. Expect it to hit along the higher end of his films.

Righteous Kill

Prediction: $10m Open, $30m Final

Actual: $16m Open, $38m Current, $40m Final

This isn’t really good news, but neither is it bad. Righteous Kill has had a thoroughly lackluster box office run. Despite the hopeful promise of a good meeting between stars Pacino and DeNiro, the quality of the film wasn’t apparent and audiences didn’t latch onto it, either.

Of the four films released this weekend, it was easily the most expensive, coming in at $60m. While it probably will see a profit, eventually, it’s going to take some time after the DVD release to do so. For the two stars, this probably won’t mean a whole lot. They’re at the point in their careers when they can rest on their laurels pretty well. DeNiro’s going to get a critical bounce-back, at least, with What Just Happened and Pacino’s going to portray Salvador Dali in a film coming out next year.

Director Jon Avnet should be much more worried. He’s had Al Pacino for two films this year and both of them underwhelmed business-wise and were hammered by the critics. Such is not the combination for a long career, unless you’re self-financing (and perhaps not even then.)

The Women

Prediction: $10m Open, $40m Final

Actual: $10m Open, $26m Current, ~$28m Final

Picturehouse went all-out on this release. It premiered in more theaters than either Burn After Reading or The Family that Preys. The advertising was out there, if a bit late in coming, and was rather strong to boot. If we were just looking at promised potential, The Women might be a bit underwhelming.

However, it’s still the second biggest release from Picturehouse by a rather wide margin. It won’t get within sight of the $37m that Pan’s Labyrinth earned, but it is well past the $20m for A Prarie Home Companion. Against a $16m budget, it’s done quite well. I felt I was a bit bullish with my $10m opening, but it hit that fairly easily.

The problem is in the legs. Usually there’s an expectation that films marketed to women will have stronger legs. Conventional wisdom has it that guys are the sorts who want to see the film on opening day, but girls are willing to wait. This seemed to be the case for The Women, which had a decent hold on the second weekend. It turns out that the third weekend was the weak point. Competition took the rug out from under it and it’s not managed to recover.

Even so, a decent result, if not a spectacular one.

Lakeview Terrace

Prediction: $5m Open, $20m Final

Actual: $15m Open, $36m Current, ~$40m Final

When expectations are low, it’s easy to exceed them. For both director Neil LaBute and star Samuel L. Jackson, Lakeview Terrace is good news. The business isn’t big, but it’s big enough to be considered a success. This is especially true considering the film’s slim $20m budget. If there’s any bad news, it’s the tepid critical response. They may have tried for a taught, awards-potential thriller, but what they gave was a modestly successful but forgettable autumn thriller.

For LaBute, this cancels out The Wicker Man and gives him his biggest opening and total tally ever. He’s still a long way away from being a commercial name, but he could build on this to get something bigger.

For Jackson, it’s a nice uptick from most of his recent starring roles. In fact, it’s a bigger opening and final than the much more heavily hyped Snakes on a Plane from two years ago.

My Best Friend’s Girl

Prediction: $20m Open, $60m Final

Actual: $8m Open, $18m Current, ~$20m Final

It’s fairly easy to see where this film went wrong, but there’s a bigger question of why didn’t anything go right for it. While clearly neither Dane Cook nor Jason Biggs are a draw, this was a poor result for Kate Hudson.

Her previous two films (Fools Gold and You, Me, and Dupree) both opened north of $20 million and finished upwards of $70m. Granted, in those cases she was paired up with male leads who were more recognizable and liked than Cook. But even for her solo efforts Raising Helen and The Skeleton Key, she managed greater than $10m openings and $30m finals.

She’s not a huge draw, but she’s modestly successful. My Best Friend’s Girl isn’t even modestly acceptable, though. The combination of Hudson + Cook opened to a good $5m less than Cook + Jessica Alba. Alba’s not a rom-com draw like Hudson, though. I’m going to assume that what happened here is a mixed message. Dane Cook tells the audience that it’s frat boy humor. Jessica Alba says hot babe that frat boys like. Kate Hudson says more female empowering babe. It doesn’t quite gel with Cook’s message. She doesn’t draw guys, he turns off girls, hence nobody goes to see the movie.

Hudson’s next rom-com is Bride Wars which has her up against Anne Hathaway, which should do a lot better than this one.

Igor

Prediction: $15m Opening, $50m Final

Actual: $8m Opening, $18m Current, ~$20m Final

The primary cause for the low gross here is that the visual style of the film far outstripped the quality. Igor looks great, as a sort of cross between Pixar and Tim Burton. However the delivery leaves much to be desired, and certainly doesn’t stand in the company of either.

However, there’s a more important reason for the low final tally. Despite the small opening, Igor held up quite well in its second weekend, dropping under 35% and earning above $5m. However, in its third and fourth weekends, it’s dropped upwards of 60%.

As weak as Igor was on release, it did stand as the only family option for a couple weeks. On its third weekend it got steamrolled by chihuahuas.

Ghost Town

Prediction: $10m Opening, $25m Final

Actual: $5m Opening, $13m Current, ~$15m Final

Ironically, this was the best reviewed of the movies that weekend. The opening was pretty anemic, but we can probably chalk that up to the poor marketing. Despite apparently being a good film (and Gervais is a talented comedian), the advertising made it all seem pretty bland and forgetful, so the audience apparently forgot to go see it. Perhaps it will see some life on DVD.

This actually held up well for a couple weeks, seeing second and third weekend drops under 50%. In that sense, it’s a bit like Igor. Unlike Igor, however, there wasn’t any new comedy competition in the third weekend to account for the 66% drop. Perhaps it just saturated its potential audience by that point.

Eagle Eye

Prediction: $30m Open, $85m Final

Actual: $29m Open, $76m Current, ~$95m final

After three weeks of studios throwing everything they could at audiences to see what would really stick (Burn After Reading, really), this was the first near-certain success. While it’s arguable that Eagle Eye opened at the low end of predictions, it’s held up very well, with two weeks of sub-40% drops.

Shia LaBeouf has done fairly well to establish himself as a bona fide star. While he can’t claim Transformers or Indiana Jones as his, the success of Disturbia and now Eagle Eye has done a lot to build his personal brand, despite some of his off-screen actions. He’s managed the nice trick of appearing in both high-concept blockbusters to get his name and face out, but also strong, smaller fare where his name is the only thing really going for it. Contrast it to Orlando Bloom’s career: managed to get the first part, but hasn’t delivered on the second.

There’s a chance Eagle Eye will see a final tally upwards of $100m. But while it has been holding well, it may just run out of time before the holiday season distracts audiences. The real deadline is November 14, when Quantum of Solace arrives as the next major actioner.

Nights in Rodanthe

Prediction: $15m Open, $60m Final

Actual: $13m Open, $37m Current, ~$45m Final

While the combination of Richard Gere, Diane Lane, and Nicholas Sparks should be some sort of perfect storm for non-comedy romances, this is a slightly underwhelming result. In comparison to previous films in the genre starring Lane and Gere (separately or apart) this is going to finish up almost perfectly average. It probably won’t quite match the $52m the two earned together in 2002 with Unfaithful.

Similarly, it isn’t a great result for Sparks. It will earn more than 2002’s A Walk to Remember, but not as much as 1999’s Message in a Bottle. And it’s far behind the breakout success of The Notebook in 2004, although in that case it was bolstered by the much stronger weekday sessions of a summer release.

To be fair, the breakout potential for a romance is going to be rather limited. With romantic comedies, there’s a better chance for crossover, but without the impetus to laugh, most men will wonder what they’re supposed to be experiencing. (Whether or not this is a real reaction or an instance of societal peer pressure is a top I won’t delve into, though.)

It’s not a bad result for Nights in Rodanthe, but given the pedigree of the people involved, it does feel somewhat underwhelming.

Fireproof

Prediction: No prediction

Actual: $7m Open, $20m Current, ~$30m Final

Sometimes films will come out of nowhere. Despite being on none of the typical radars, Fireproof managed to hit number 4 in the box office its opening weekend and has held on quite well.

It does this because it fits its niche. And that niche is Christianity. For the most part, the general-movie public isn’t going to know about these releases unless they’re anomalous and have a large crossover, as happened with Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia. There will be public perception after the fact in some cases, but it’s usually short lived.

Fireproof is notable not only because it managed a strong release, but also the legs its displayed. Relative to expectations, which were near non-existant, this is a bona fide blockbuster. It’s also helped because it cost a slim $500,000 to make. The return on investment here is huge, and it would probably serve well to the movie studios to take a lesson: they can hit the Christian market and hit it well without needing the films to be the next Passion.

Miracle at St. Anna

Prediction: $10m Open, $35m Final

Actual: $3.5m Open, $8m Current, ~$9m Final

While Spike Lee’s ability to weave stories of inner-city racial tension are well accounted, it seems he doens’t quite have the same keen hand on the keel for war films. It seems the consensus is that Lee had some strong ideas to work with here, but wasn’t able to pull them together in a strongly cohesive whole.

I wonder if there might be a wider war movie backlash at play. Films focusing on the Middle East have failed to work for the past several years, but it seems that even films about World War 2 are starting to falter. After a number of successes in the late 90s and early 00s, there have been fewer of late and those that were released haven’t gotten a toe-hold. Clint Eastwood’s twosome of Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima didn’t even manage $50m between them.

It could be that audiences are likely to tune out anything that has a war sensation until the war is actually over. The WW2 films succeeded in a period of high patriotism for what happened in that war. Right now, the general public is very down on the concept of Americans fighting, so they won’t really respect depictions of such, at least not directly. Transformers managed a rather positive depiction of the US Military.

Overall

September wasn’t too surprising this year. It started off with a whimper and then had weeks of the studios throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick. In the end, we’ve got two large successes (Burn After Reading and Eagle Eye), and a number of middling performances along with a few failures. On the upside for the studios, just about everything released was cheap, so most will probably see a profit in the end.

October Movie Preview

This is a bit later than expected. I’ve been working up a video game review that’s lasted quite a bit longer than expected.

October’s one of those middling months. It isn’t a dumping ground, but also doesn’t see the really high profile releases that you get in the Summer or Holiday seasons. In recent years, it’s fallen behind February and March in terms of bigger films, but it’s still prone to having some breakouts. It hasn’t had a $200m earner, but crossing the $100m mark isn’t too rare.

Of course, the big thing about October is Halloween. While it’s not a dumping ground, per se, for the last two or three weekends of the month (depending on the calendar) horror films abound. This year promises to be no different, including the now annual Lionsgate profit generator.

Weekend of October 3

An American Carol

The latest effort from comedy director David Zucker pokes fun at Micheal Moore in an attempt to earn laughs from red America. In it, a Moore-esque character goes through a Scrooge sequence with three ghosts of American spirit to try and learn to love the country again.

Frankly, this looks terrible. While it’s possible, even likely, that someone could do a good send-up of Moore, there’s the obvious pitfall of being polarizing and partisan in the effort. Moore’s work is already divisive, any parody is probably going to be the same in the other direction and from the advertising, that seems to be the case here.

While Zucker has a name for himself as a comedy director, his best work is over two decades old, with the likes of Airplane!, Top Secret! and The Naked Gun. His most recent films are Scary Movie 3 and 4, neither of which is very inspiring.

Advertising has been almost nonexistant, and the film is only getting a 1600 screen release. Technically wide, but it’s really a minimal effort. Additionally, the presidential race has been intense this year, and with people cued into that, they’re probably not going to want to waste their time looking at a Michael Moore parody.

The only bright spot here is Kelsey Grammar, who looks to have a great portrayal of Patton.

Opening: $5m, Final: $10m

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

While this looks bad and possibly painful for anyone above the age of ten or so, it seems likely that it will do rather well. For starters, recognition is very high. Disney kicked off a fairly effective advertising campaign during the Olympics, which was quite high profile this year. People know about the Chihuahuas.

Secondly, there hasn’t been a strong family entry in the marketplace in months. The last films to target this market and do well were Journey to the Center of the Earth and Wall-E back in July. The audience potential is there in a big way.

And the talking animal genre tends to do very strong. Last year’s Alvin & the Chipmunks cruised past $200 million and there have been the more modest successes such as Charlotte’s Web and Racing Stripes in recent years. Looking further back big hits such as the Dr. Doolittle films and 101 Dalmations tended to dominate. Talking animals can be big, big money.

Opening: $25m, Final: $75m

Blindness

This effort from Miramax is a thriller about an unknown plague that causes people to go blind. Those people are rounded up and put into quarantine. But one woman is able to see and, presumably works to get the people free and properly treated.

This could be a strong film. The cast is solid, with Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Danny Glover. Director Fernando Meirelles was behind the camera for the spectacular City of God. And the concept of spontaneously going blind could tap into a bunch of people’s fears.

However, while it’s a strong cast, it’s not a cast that draws an audience. Likewise, while Meirelles is a good director, he’s not a draw. City of God was a niche foreign language film and his last effort The Constant Gardener didn’t break out, earning just $33 million domestically.

Perhaps the most damning problem is that it seems rather generic. Plague and quarantine films seem to be fairly commonplace of late. We’ve had The Happening and Doomsday already this year. There’s the upcoming Quarantine, and looking further back are the higher profile 28 Days and Weeks Later films.

Miramax doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in the film. The advertising has been fairly tepid and it’s opening in about the same number of theaters as An American Carol.

Opening: $5m, Final: $15m

Flash of Genius

Greg Kinnear stars in this film about Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. After they stole the design from him, Kearns pursued a multi-decade lawsuit against the Big Three and eventually won $30m dollars.

It does look like a heartwarming and inspiring story, which could play well in the long run, but this is going to be a long road to success. The joke here is to wonder whether the film will even earn $30m in total. It’s certainly possible, but only if it sees similar success to Kinnear’s Little Miss Sunshine. Similarity of the feel-good sensation aside, he doesn’t have Steve Carell or Abigail Breslin to help him out.

Little Miss Sunshine also had a true platform release, building up from 7 theaters in late July to over 1500 in September. Flash of Genius is getting a barely-wide 1000 theater release without any build-up. It doesn’t speak of a lot of confidence on the part of the distributor.

Opening: $3m, Final: $10m

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Outside of the chihuahua film, this has the biggest potential. That potential has the name of Michael Cera. Cera came into the public conscience with his role in Arrested Development, but it was last year’s tandem of Superbad and Juno that made him a star. At this point he has the geeky kid with a slight edge down cold and audiences love it.

This film isn’t asking him to stretch his boundries, as he’s playing basically the same role. The marketing acknowledges that, with everything down to the text used in the posters practically screaming that this is the hip, spiritual successor to Juno. Just without the Juno.

The advertising makes it look fun and enjoyable, in the same ‘one wild night’ way that Superbad rode to success. It’s possible, but not too likely, that this could really catch on and be a leggy success, beating out Beverly Hills Chihuahua in the end. More likely that it’ll be a modest success and another feather in Cera’s geeky hat.

Opening: $15m, Final: $50m

Appaloosa

By now it’s already had a couple weekends of modestly successful limited release and is starting to see a platform into the wider markets. The film stars Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Renee Zellweger and is directed by Harris in only his second time behind the camera. (He also directed a 2000 biopic about Jackson Pollock.)

This is a gritty western in the veign of 3:10 to Yuma, Open Range, and Unforgiven. Those are likely the films that it would like to emulate. Westerns are a bit dicey, though. While there is a fairly regular business with them, the audience can be picky. Perhaps because of this the ones that break out tend to make news. If Appaloosa can tap into that Yuma or Range vibe, it will probably do similarly well. If not, it could end up like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Opening: $4m, Final: $12m

Weekend of October 10

Body of Lies

Ridley Scott’s latest film has Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe involved in a convoluted spy game. Twists and thrills abound as is customary for this sort of film, with lots of motive questions left for (presumably) the final breathtaking minutes.

Scott is a director who can deliver big films. He directed last year’s American Gangster, and has also seen big returns on Black Hawk Down and Gladiator.

DiCaprio, as well, is fairly consistently a big star. He’s recently been a go-to guy for Martin Scorsese (The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York), and put together a scene-stealing performance in Catch Me if You Can.

Crowe’s seen some of his biggest successes with Scott in American Gangster and Gladiator, but he’s also had A Beautiful Mind and some more modest bright spots like 3:10 to Yuma.

That’s three big names, but it’s not necessarily a rosy picture. While Scott can be big, he can also deliver middling performances like Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven. DiCaprio’s last film was the action thriller Blood Diamond, not an embarassment, but not a breakout either. And Crowe’s had his share of bumps on and off-screen such as Cinderella Man. He also collaborated with Scott on the flop A Good Year.

Taken at face value, Body of Lies should be strong. It’s playing to the strengths of all three men. Adrenaline with a bit of cerebral action has worked for all three in the past and will likely to the same in the future. But there are question marks here.

First, spy movies are a bit dicey. A common pitfall is to make them too convoluted. While it’s probably gratifying to come up with a really twisty story with lots of backstabs and gotchas, there’s a limit to what audiences are willing to take in two hours. If it’s really complex, it should be a novel. The Bourne films probably hit just about the right mark as far as balancing how complex the story should be. They left some things up in the air for a while, but by the end the audience could nod and go ‘Oh, yeah!’ as they figure out what’s been going on. Whether or not Body of Lies can hit that same mark is going to be critical for its long-term success.

Also, the topic of the film is a big question mark. Audiences have shown quite well that they have no wish to view anything related to the Middle East. The film is set there (in Jordan), and if that comes through people are going to tune out, even if the thrills can deliver. Last year’s The Kingdom promised thrills aplenty, with the last half-hour advertised as an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, but the Middle East setting turned audiences off and left it with a thoroughly mediocre performance.

For Body of Lies to succeed it needs to strike a delecate balance between smart and gripping while simultaneously playing up the spy elements while playing down the Middle East.

Opening: $20m, Final: $60m

City of Ember

This is a post-apocalyptic movie based on a young adult book about a city in darkness that is kept alive by a failing electric light system. As things start failing, a pair of plucky youths search for a way out so that they (and humanity) can survive.

Ember is a fairly solid choice for the transition from book to film. The setting is evocative and by focusing on the light in the darkness nature of the city it could be a visual treat. Additionally, the encroaching darkness is expressive and often successful in film. It taps into such a universal fear that it works for both kids and adults.

However, while there is positive potential here, some questions are also raised. It starts with production studio Walden Media. While the company has had some success, it’s also seen a number of bigger than expected failures. Just this year the second Narnia film failed to capture an audience and limped to less than half of its predecessor. in Ember’s favor, the expectation isn’t that high. Best case scenario is that it turns in a performance along the lines of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Worst case it ends up like Hoot.

Second, while some young adult novels do very well in theaters, most can only expect modest returns. So anyone who’s looking for the next Harry Potter should probably be looking elsewhere. Of course the October release date should have clued people into that.

Third, it just doesn’t look very good. While it’s got veteran actors like Tim Robbins and Bill Murray, the advertising doesn’t have them delivering a standout, and the production looks a bit cheap. Unfortunately it might be because the concept of the city is so evocative in the novel that the transition to screen can’t help but to be a bit of a disappointment.

Journey to the Center of the Earth probably gave Walden a bit of a reprive. Ember isn’t likely to ruin the company, but it’s also not likely to renew a lot of faith in it, either.

Opening: $15m, Final: $50m

The Express

This biopic is about Ernie Davis, a running back for Syracuse University who was the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961. The football drama is going to try and tap into the same success that Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, and Invincible all experienced.

Americans tend to love films about an underdog who comes out on top, particularly in a sports setting. Star Dennis Quaid is no stranger to these things, as he starred in The Rookie in 2002 and Any Given Sunday in 1999. These sports success stories are more often successful than not. Recent entries like Miracle, Rocky Balboa, and Coach Carter have all done solid, if not spectacular, business.

The best case scenario here is that The Express will mirror Remember the Titans, but that’s probably a long shot. It needs to be good and to connect with audiences so they keep coming back.

Opening: $20m, Final: $70m

Quarantine

This film takes the zombie breakout context of 28 Days Later and puts it in a claustrophobic setting like Phone Booth and then uses the real-time filming sense of Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project. The hope is that it will become a must-see sensation.

The marketing for the film has been a viral attempt to sell it as a real story that has never before been told. This can be a strong tactic, but I think that audiences by now are clueing into it. At best this can be a receipe for a big opening weekend, but these films rarely have strong legs.

There are no recognizable stars and really little to sell the film beyond the concept. Also, with higher profile and possibly better scary films hitting later in the month, the window for Quarantine to succeed is rather slim. On the upside, it looks a bit more compelling than Blindness.

Opening: $15m, Final: $30m

Weekend of October 17

Max Payne

This adaptation of the video game has Mark Wahlberg stepping into the shoes of the titular detective. John Moore (The Omen, Flight of the Phoenix) is behind the camera.

The bad news for this one is that it’s a video game adaptation. Few films in the genre have garnered even middiling approval and business has tended to be weak, more often than not. It’s somewhat ironic that with more and more top of the line video game titles vying for popular supremacy with the biggest films that Hollywood can continue to put forth such weak efforts based on video game properties. But since the biggest names in the video game adaptation business are Uwe Boll and Paul W. S. Anderson, it’s probably too much to expect that people are going to take them seriously.

Somewhat worse for Max Payne is that it’s a bit dated, already. When the game first appeared in 2001, it promised to bring the bullet time sensation of a John Woo film or The (first) Matrix to the computer screen, and it did it quite well, enough that it got a sequel in 2003. However, we’re five years beyond that, and such action has become rather commonplace in video games, not to mention being so rampant in movies that it’s widely parodied. So there isn’t much that feels fresh and interesting here.

What that leaves Max Payne as is a slick-looking noir mystery. It probably has a slim chance to perform like a number of mid-tier comic book adaptations such as Constantine, Sin City, V for Vendetta, or the Hellboy films. Because it has a bit of name recognition, a final tally on par with those is probaby its best case scenario. However, those films were released in the relatively stronger spring period. (Or summer, in the case of Hellboy 2.)

In all likelihood, Max Payne will perform more along the lines of the Resident Evil films. As long as it does better than last year’s Hitman, it’ll probably be a success.

Opening: $25m, Final: $55m

Sex Drive

An ever popular topic for films is having geeky guys trying to get laid while hilarity ensues. American Pie kicked off a recent spate of these including two sequels, Road Trip, and last year’s Superbad. Looking further back are venerable entries such as Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. Sex Drive falls in line with these perfectly. It focuses on an eighteen-year-old virgin who goes on a cross-country trip to hook up with his internet girlfriend.

The concept’s a bit thin and probably won’t catch on like Superbad did, but it should be strong enough to survive. The film is helped by a strong trailer, capped by Seth Green’s hilarious take on a car-savvy Amish man. The gags are presented well and should tap into some of the same crowd which led the similar films to past success.

Opening: $20m, Final: $65m

Weekend of October 24

Saw V

The first Saw film was a bit of a word of mouth sensation, captivating and claustrophobic, it left the viewer chilled with its somewhat unique take on the serial killer sub-genre. The success spawned a sequel, which was even bigger. This spawned another sequel and what we now have is that every year since 2004 there has been a new Saw film.

To say this is surprising is an understatement, because the primary villain, Jigsaw, died in the third film. However never one to let logic get in the way of profits, the producers have seen fit to extend the series at least until it stops making money. Saw V promises even more convoluted plot twists and traps than its predecessors.

The trend is fairly clear at this point. Business has been falling since the second, and it seems possible that Saw V will see a lower gross than the $55m of the first film. Audiences are clearly tiring of the concept at this point and horror fans are probably in the mood for something a little different. To give Saw credit, it’s outlasted other entries into the torture horror genre by a couple years.

Opening: $25m, Final: $55m

The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D

While Lionsgate has been recycling the same concept in a new film each year, Disney’s merely recycled the same film. First released in 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas earned $50m. A small re-release in 2000 didn’t add much to the total, but they remastered it for a 2006 release which pumped another $8m to the tally. Last year added another $15m. So yet again it’s getting a high-profile, if limited release.

There’s obviously nothing new here, but the familiarity can be a strength. The film is very well received and has some extremely dedicated fans, so Disney’s choice to bring it back each year makes a fair bit of sense. Whether or not it continues to see rising grosses remains to be seen, but it should do well enough that it will get another such release next year, when it can probably hope to cross the century mark for the first time.

Opening: $5m, Final: $15m

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

High School Musical 3 is perhaps the only film to see two TV and home video releases before graduating to the big screen. The first film in the series had a stunningly powerful debut of over 7 million viewers on the Disney Channel in 2006, followed by an equally strong DVD release. At the time I figured that the sequel would get a theatrical release. Apparently Disney decided that if it wasn’t broke, they weren’t going to fix it and the sequel followed the same path. It garnered over 17 million viewers, showing that the audience for the HSM films was dedicated and large.

Apparently deciding that they can earn even more with a big screen release, Disney’s done the transition for the third go-round. Besides the two TV releases, the path has been paved very well for HSM3. Mamma Mia! and Hairspray both showed that musicals can succeed very well. Miley Cyrus showed that Disney Channel audiences are willing to make the trek to the theater if the payoff promises to be good.

Perhaps most important, however, is how transitive High School Musical is. While the Disney Channel has a rather specific demographic the appeal here is quite a bit wider. There are a number of post-college people who are fans so expecting to see groups attending outside the expected demographic shouldn’t be surprising.

Perhaps the only odd bit here is that it’s getting released at the same time as The Nightmare Before Christmas… a musical from the same company. It’s possible that there might be some cannibalization in opening weekend profits, but I don’t think it’ll matter in the end.

Opening: $35m, Final: $90m

Pride & Glory

Lost in the shuffle this weekend is likely to be Pride and Glroy, a crime drama starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell. They play police officer brothers in the NYPD who get embroiled in dirty cop deeds. Norton investigates the wrongdoings and family strife ensues. Jon Voight plays their father.

In truth this looks like a fairly solid effort, showcasing the acting talent that Norton has (especially in his smaller fare) and a possible second wind for Farrell’s career. It could be a very good film and an attempt at a relatively early awards contender.

However, the release date is pretty bad. The weekend is already crowded and marketing space is going to be limited. The one strength Pride and Glory has is that it might serve as good counter-programming. With younger-skewing crowds going for any of the other three films, older (mostly male) audiences may choose this instead. If they know about it.

Opening: $10m, Final: $30m

Weekend of October 31

The Haunting of Molly Hartley

This film is about a girl who is trying to fit into a new school after recovering from an attack by her deranged mother. Psychological and supernatural events ensue, possibly leading her down the same path to insanity.

This film fills the same niche that The Covenant did in 2006. Ironically both films star Chace Crawford, who may be onto an early career mistake of getting typecast. While it seems like this is an obvious niche: a PG-13 scarefest for kids who can’t get into the more gory R-rated horror flicks, most kids are probably going to pass or sneak into those other films anyway.

What’s worse is that there’s really only one day where this can do effective business. People want the screams for Halloween, but not afterwards. That means it might expect a strong Friday, but there are still two more days on the opening weekend to fill. So much like The Omen, this could be a one and done venture, with the majority of its total business coming in the first twenty-four hours.

Opening: $10m, Final: $20m

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Kevin Smith’s latest film has a pair of roommates taking extreme measures to make sure they can pay their rent. Snappy dialogue and a budding relationship are likely to ensue. Smith can certainly deliver the funny, and is fairly well respected as a comedy director, and he has a loyal following, but so far he hasn’t had a hit.

Enter Seth Rogen, comedy’s latest golden boy. Despite really only having two starring roles and supporting in a few more, it seems that he can do no wrong at the moment. Thus far he’s worked closely with Judd Apatow and has seen stunning success in Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. Besides Zack and Miri, he’s got Observe and Report with Anna Faris and Funny People with Adam Sandler, both due next year. He’s also been tapped for The Green Hornet, with Stephen Chow.

While working with Smith might be a bit outside Rogen’s comfort zone, it should work out quite well. They have a good similarity in comedic styles and Rogen’s very much in the public conscience at the moment. It should be a match made in heaven and could lead to Smith’s first breakout hit.

Opening: $25m, Final: $70m

Overall

While a number of releases this month aren’t too inspiring, the last two weekends could be very big. Somewhat strangely, the frightfests look to play second fiddle to the comedies this year.

August Movie Recap

With the amazing high of The Dark Knight in July pushing the yearly tally for 2008 beyond the heights of 2007, the big question for August was whether it would be able to keep up the pace. There weren’t any expectations for this August to beat last August (not after the exemplary performance from both The Bourne Ultimatum and Superbad), but staying within spitting distance would help keep the year on pace.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Prediction: $40m Open, $130m Final

Actual: $40m Open, $100m Current, ~$105m Final

If, at the beginning of the year, you had looked at the two Brendan Fraser films and tried to guess which would be considered a hit and the other a miss, you’d probably have guessed that if any, this would have been the hit. It’s not a flop, and given the overseas success it’s likely to turn a tidy profit when all is said and done, but the domestic tally is disappointing. In comparison, Journey to the Center of the Earth manages to switch itself up twice this summer as a success story, doing it here and with Prince Caspian.

The reason for the lack of success here can mostly be summed up in the loss of fun from the earlier films. Fraser is still game, but in light of what moviegoers can get in 2008, there wasn’t any life around him. The lesson to take from this is that if you want to revive a franchise, you don’t give it to Rob Cohen to direct.

Swing Vote

Prediction: $10m Open, $45m Final

Actual: $6m Open, $16m Current, ~$16m Final

For the most part, Americans don’t like politics in their movies. They don’t like films that focus on the failures abroad, and they don’t like films that focus on the troubles at home. When things are relatively bad, Americans don’t like to be reminded that they, as a country, are fallable and mortal.

So over the past couple of years, the extreme failure of any film to deliver a message about the state of the US in relation to the rest of the world isn’t too surprising. Swing Vote didn’t have any of that, but my comparison to Dave was way off the mark. In retrospect, this makes sense for two reasons. First, the state of the US in 1993 was perceived quite a bit better than it is today, so a lighthearted comedy about the presidency could work quite well. Instead we’ve got a situation where all Americans are focused on the election. Second, the election itself is providing far more entertainment than any movie could deliver.

Ten years ago, Swing Vote might have worked perfectly, but not today.

Pineapple Express

Prediction: $30m Open, $110m Final

Actual: $23m Open, $41m Five-Day, $85m Current, ~$95m Final

The first of many August movies to get a Wednesday release without any holidays, in this case it was done to try and offset the loss of business due to the Olympics. Intially, it seemed to work quite well, because it earned $12m on it’s opening day. By Saturday, it seemed it had failed, because the business wasn’t up on Friday at all. But on Sunday, things looked good again, because it had barely dropped. It was truly one of the weirdest five-day openings we’ve seen in quite some time.

Pineapple Express hasn’t displayed the legs of the stronger Apatow films like 40-Year-Old Virgin or Superbad, but it’s not done that poorly, either. For a film that cost $27m to make and had the prime of its run go up against Michael Phelps, this is quite rosey.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

Prediction: $10m Open, $45m Final

Actual: $11m Open, $43m Current, $46m Final

Much like Pineapple Express and the first Traveling Pants film, this got a Wednesday release. It’s not been a breakout, but neither has it been a disappointment. There’s a showing of quiet consistency with this film, which probably means we could see a third Pants film in the not too distant future (assuming the stars don’t get too old to play the parts.) The book series has two more volumes, so there is room.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Prediction: $45m Open, $140m Final

Actual: $15m Open, $33m Current, ~$35m Final

There really isn’t much of a market for Star Wars outside of the hardcore fans. And apparently this turned them off as well. What this means for the forthcoming TV series remains to be seen, but it’s a terrible result for the film. I believe Lucas saw $100m as the break even point for this one.

Tropic Thunder

Prediction: $30m Open, $110m Final

Actual: $25m Open, $37m Five-Day, $96m Current, ~$110m Final

Like Pineapple Express, this got a non-holiday Wednesday release. It wasn’t quite so spectacular from the start, earning half as much on the opening day, but it’s held up much better. It managed to grab the #1 spot from Batman and hold it for three weeks, only losing the position this past weekend to Nicholas Cage, and even there just barely.

The difference between this and Pineapple Express is the budget. While the Apatow comedy had a small $27m budget, this one apparently cost at least $90m to make. It’s still likely a success, since the home video market will certainly cover the costs, but the road is a bit longer. There’s a chance it might break even with the overseas totals, but that’s not guaranteed. This is a film that’s aimed rather strongly at American audiences.

Mirrors

Prediction: $5m Open, $15m Final

Actual: $11m Open, $27m Current, ~$33m Final

While the shine has certainly come off of Asian horror remakes, there’s still a bit of life left in the genre. The run for this one is eerily reminiscent of February’s The Eye. This is probably an okay result for distributor Fox, as horror tends to be a cheap genre.

The House Bunny

Prediction: $10m Open, $30m Final

Actual: $15m Open, $37m Current, ~$55m Final

Call this one a win for Anna Faris. She can probably do enjoyably dumb better than anyone else in Hollywood, and her success here probably means she’ll have more of a career than Scary Movie sequels. In six or seven years, she’ll probably be ready to do a daring dramatic turn that’ll get her an Oscar nomination.

Death Race

Prediction: $10m Open, $25m Final

Actual: $13m Open, $30m Current, $40m Final

Some people are calling this a failure, but I’m really not sure why. He makes films that end up in the $25-$45m range, and he does that consistently and usually enjoyably. The niche he’s found in providing low-brow, low-budget, high-thrills entertainment in the dregs of summer is something that Hollywood should celebrate, frankly. It’s not like they have to pay the guy a ton. Death Race is playing right in line with his films.

If anyone deserves the blame here, it’s probably Paul W.S. Anderson. Had this film cost $25m, everything would have been golden, but it cost $45m and it’s considered a failure. It’s not a failure, because it would be nearly impossible for this to lose money after the home video release, but there’s still some headline focus on the theatrical release as the profit-maker.

Next up for Statham is Transporter 3, where he gets a massive holiday upgrade from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.

Fly Me to the Moon

Prediction: $5m Open, $10m Final

Actual: $2m Open, $8m Current, ~$10m Final

There was a plan here, I think, to try and use this film to springboard a studio to getting more computer animation films in wider release. It didn’t work. Neither did the 3D release.

Babylon A.D.

Prediction: $20m Open, $45m Final

Actual: $9m Open, $17m Current, ~$25m Final

Vin Diesel apparently passed on the lead role in Hitman for this. Not that passing on Hitman is anything to be ashamed of, but with Diesel in that role instead of Timothy Olyphant, it might have even gotten to $50m. Instead we’ve got this film, which is a less-good Children of Men. In fact, it’s so bad that director Mathieu Kassovitz disowned it before the release. Not entirely, since this isn’t an Alan Smithee film, but he did contend that the studio had ruined it.

For Diesel, he’s got Fast & Furious coming out next June, which reconnects him with fast cars and Paul Walker, who has arguably had a better career than Diesel since they starred together in the first film. If it doesn’t fly, Diesel might end up taking the Wesley Snipes career route.

College

Prediction: $8m Open, $15m Final

Actual: $2m Open, $4m Current, ~$6m Final

With the success of Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, and The House Bunny there really hasn’t been room for other comedies. There are many reasons this film is a failure, but I think that one stands out: “Best. Weekend. Ever.” is a terrible tagline to try and sell a film. I bet they wish this film was as successful as Eurotrip ($17m final).

Traitor

Prediction: $2m Open, $5m Final

Actual: $8m Open, $17m Current, ~$30m Final

After an extremely soft Wednesday release of under $800,000, Traitor managed to surprise a bit over the long Labor Day weekend, with over $11m in six days. It hasn’t garnered strong critical praise, but this is going to be Don Cheadle’s biggest headlining film. It’s even bigger than some which have paired him with bigger stars, such as Reign Over Me with Adam Sandler.

Disaster Movie

Prediction: $5m Open, $10m Final

Actual: $6m Open, $11m Current, $17m Final

Slowly but surely, the [x] Movies are dying and may soon be but a bad memory. I’m not sure how long that will take, though, as they’re dirt cheap to produce.

The Rocker

Prediction: $15m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $3m Open, $6m Current, $6m Final

Well, it got bumped a few weeks, so instead of competing with Step Brothers and Pineapple Express for comedy dollars, it ended up competing with Tropic Thunder, The House Bunny, Disaster Movie, College, Hamlet 2, AND Pineapple Express. There’s really no good news here except that the film only cost $15m to produce. The opening (actually $2.6m) is the worst for any film to open in 2500 theaters or more.

Moreover, it’s second-to-third weekend drop of 84% is terrifically bad, in the territory of Uwe Boll films and Gigli. It also lost the second most theaters going into the third weekend, beaten only by Meet Dave. Rainn Wilson might have wanted to try his hand at movies in the TV offseason, but he really needs to get in on a film with some bigger stars to carry him along.

Overall

The Dark Knight’s total is up over $510m, and it’s almost certain to get to $530m. It’s entirely possible that it shoots past $550m, if only because of IMAX screenings. $55m of its total has come from the bigger than big screens and they’re apparently still selling out on weekend. Plus there’s a chance that WB will re-release it for the Oscar season. If they do, it’s possible that it would nudge past Titantic on the all-time list. Of course, the money is likely better if they just do a DVD release in time for the holidays, but there are a lot of bragging rights to being number one. And it’s not likely that the record would fall any time soon. The only real chance is if Star Wars gets another theatrical release which earns it $140m or more. After the reception of The Clone Wars, that’s not too likely.

Also, while there’s some good in August, it wasn’t enough to keep ahead of last year’s pace. 2007 managed to pass $7 billion by the end of the Labor Day weekend. 2008 isn’t quite there and is running about 1% behind right now.

September Movie Predictions

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

Bangkok Dangerous

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

Righteous Kill

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.

The Women

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

Ghost Town

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

Igor

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

Lakeview Terrace

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

Taken

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

Eagle Eye

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

Overall

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.