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