Gearing up for holidays, majors tally quarter's hits

The holiday film frenzy is only half over, but the seeds are planted: Each studio has already made a distinct imprint in the fourth quarter.

Who are this year’s champs and chumps?

WARNER BROS: THE COMEBACK KID

“The Departed” and “Happy Feet” are two of the season’s biggest bull’s-eyes so far. The studio has a challenge on its hands, however, with politically aware adventure “Blood Diamond,” followed by feel-good sports drama “We Are Marshall.”

Warner Bros. sweated out the summer with “Superman Returns,” “Poseidon,” “Lady in the Water” and “Ant Bully,” with results so dire that there was buzz of high-level production and marketing shakeups.

But unlike “Ant Bully,” Warners’ “Happy Feet” has proven the studio can handle CG fare. (Pic has led the domestic B.O. three straight weekends, a feat that a CG pic hasn’t accomplished since DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale” and “Shrek 2″ in 2004.)

Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” which rolled out in early October, has been a sleeper hit as auds embrace a helmer who usually draws more interest from critics and hardcore buffs than from mainstream moviegoers.

“Departed,” based on twisty Asian actioner “Infernal Affairs,” opened to more than $26 million and has taken in $200 million worldwide to date.

“After you come off a summer when you have expectations and do not reach them, you have to walk slowly,” says Warners distrib honcho Dan Fellman. “You don’t want to say, ‘This is going to be the one’ about a picture. So it’s very uplifting to open ‘Departed’ the way we did and have it in great contention.”

Warners’ fall failures, meantime, have been marginal. Studio’s “The Fountain,” by Darren Aronofsky, was largely lost in the fall fray, but the pic was made with Regency.

SONY: ‘CASINO’ GAMBLE

Sony’s release of MGM’s “Casino Royale” is on track to become the highest-grossing pic in the franchise’s history. (The pic looks likely to cross $500 million worldwide.)

But “Casino” was a real spin of the wheel. Though the franchise is tried-and-true, this outing repped a reinvention of the formula.

The 2002 “Die Another Day,” which featured sassy one-liners and an invisible car, was the highest-grossing of the Bond pics. “Casino” is a tougher, grittier look at Bond’s early days. And Sony stuck with Daniel Craig, whose casting made him the target of grouchy bloggers — with the mainstream media giving a surprising amount of credence to a few noisy naysayers.

History has shown that Bond pics released at Thanksgiving rarely run until Christmas. However, “Casino” has benefited from an unusual crossover beyond the series’ core Bond fan base, thanks in large part to Craig.

“The risk to reinvent the franchise paid off really well,” says Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution prez. “Considering it was the story of how Bond becomes 007, it was the perfect time to reinvent.”

“Casino” should help make up for a number of pics that didn’t exactly burn up the B.O. for Sony, including “All the King’s Men,” CG-animated “Open Season,” horror sequel “The Grudge 2″ and arty pics “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Running With Scissors.”

MGM: MYSTERIOUS, AMBITIOUS

Bond, of course, was also a boon to his home studio MGM.

But much like a secret agent, MGM’s identity has been difficult to pin down.

To fire up its pipeline, the rejigged studio had inked output deals with a number of indie labels, including the Weinstein Co. But MGM’s relationship to the banners seems hazy at times, even to some of the execs involved.

TWC initially was going to release “Miss Potter” and “Breaking and Entering” through the Lion’s mouth, but then kept the films for itself.

Alternately, MGM can’t decide when to give credit. Sometimes it’s adamant that there be no mention of a pic’s supplier; at other times, it takes pains to namecheck who supplied a film.

MGM continues to cast about for a pic that works. Up next: “Rocky Balboa” as well as Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave,” from Millennium Films.

FOX: THE KAZAKH KNACK

Fox, meantime, continues its streak of turning midlevel and low-budget pics into champions. After watching “The Devil Wears Prada” spin B.O. gold over the summer, the studio took the oddball “Borat” into the winner’s circle this fall.

The move came even after some in Hollywood thought the studio had sold “Borat” short by cutting the number of screens. Some said it was giving up on the pic; others give Fox credit for changing gears quickly and tinkering with the release at the 11th hour.

DISNEY: TEFLON STUDIO

In the fourth quarter, Disney seems to be weathering every storm.

Its latest “Santa Clause” pic delivered about $73 million after five weeks in release. “The Prestige” is a risky hybrid of brainy arthouse puzzle and bigscreen adventure, and Disney earned respectable B.O. for the relatively low-budget pic.

But the biggest triumph is surviving the fiasco potential of “Apocalypto.” Other studios rejected the pic as too bloody, too foreign. Mel Gibson’s drunken outbursts last July were a PR disaster. Hollywood questioned whether the studio would abandon the pic.

Instead, Disney is capitalizing on Gibson in its publicity, not shunning him. Early reviews are enthusiastic and potential auds seem unfazed by the summer incident.

PARAMOUNT: WAITING FOR KUDOS

This is the first awards season for the Brad Grey-Gail Berman slate and Par-DreamWorks’ “Dreamgirls” seems to have a lot of momentum. But “Flags of Our Fathers” and Par Vantage’s “Babel” are bigger question marks.

Par and DreamWorks lovingly and smartly handled the launch of “Flags.” Reviews were reverent and industry auds were appreciative, but the B.O. wasn’t booming. After seven weeks, “Flags” has flapped to just $33.5 million.

But Academy members don’t study B.O. reports when they vote, so it’s hard to say if the figures will affect the results.

Compounding the mystery, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” distribbed by Warner Bros. domestically, is being released this year. Will the companion piece abet or compete with “Flags”?

Grey roped in “Babel” for the studio and subsequently rolled it out through specialty division Paramount Vantage. Pic seemingly has everything going for it with stars, reviews and marketing muscle.

However, in a year when intelligent auds seem more interested in James Bond than arty pics, it only managed to capture the specialty circuit before stalling out in a wider release. “Babel” could conceivably mount a comeback based on major kudos.

Par and DreamWorks also were snakebit on the animated pic “Flushed Away.”

UNIVERSAL: METAMORPHOSIS

Universal is still in flux as new leaders David Linde and Marc Shmuger assume responsibility for the studio.

Some recent pics haven’t worked well (“Man of the Year,” “The Black Dahlia”) but U didn’t have too much at stake in them.

Kudos season could bring some upbeat news for the studio. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” has drawn a lot of admirers and the studio is bullish on Paul Greengrass’s “United 93,” one of the best-reviewed pics of the year. “The Good Shepherd” was one of the last films to be screened this year, but is bound to draw attention due to its director (Robert De Niro), big stars (Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie) and big themes (the birth of the CIA).

NEW LINE: DVD-READY

If anyone needs proof of the values of DVD, they should study New Line’s releases. The tone was set in August when “Snakes on a Plane,” after endless online and media hype, opened to numbers that were consistent with those of a low-budget scare movie.

The R-rated film should do exceedingly well on DVD. That could also be true of New Line’s fourth-quarter releases “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny” and “The Nativity Story,” which both failed to cultivate their (very different) core auds at the box office. “Little Children,” meanwhile, has been waiting for awards contention to perk up and expand.

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