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.

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.