Fall movies wither at the box office

Stars can't save stacked-up slate

There were some big surprises at the fall box office.

The films that worked were surprises. The ones that didn’t were even more so, considering their pedigree.

It’s hard to remember such a maze of high-profile titles in September and October, so hopes were high heading into the season. After all, aren’t intelligent, serious films from top-flight directors and actors what moviegoers want to see in the fall?

So observers were surprised when the box office started heading south after the record-breaking summer, but head south it did, defying conventional wisdom and claiming plenty of victims.

All in all, it was a strange convergence of events.

  • October bore the first casualty in the raunchy comedy boom. It was widely assumed that Ben Stiller starrer “The Heartbreak Kid” would be the early fall tentpole, seeing as the project reunited Stiller with “There’s Something About Mary” helmers the Farrelly brothers, not to mention Stiller’s stellar box office record.

Crude laffer debuted to a disappointing $14 million on Oct. 5, abruptly ending DreamWorks’ box office winning streak and reminding everyone that auds can turn dour on a genre just like that.

  • Instead, the crown went to an unlikely suspect: Disney’s family laffer “The Game Plan,” starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Film, which opened Sept. 28, was supposed to be a relatively small player; instead, it has gone on to gross more than $77 million, by far the highest-grossing title of the fall to date.

Similarly, before its bow on Sept. 7, many discounted the chances for James Mangold’s Western remake “3:10 to Yuma,” based on the fact that the project had languished for years in development and eventually been put in turnaround by Sony. The Lionsgate-Relativity Media pic, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, has grossed $53.2 million since its debut, the second-best number after “Game Plan.”

Warner Bros.’ moody legal thriller “Michael Clayton,” starring George Clooney, also is hanging in there. Film, hardly a broad title like “Erin Brockovich,” has grossed just over $30 million to date, a solid number considering the film cost under $25 million to produce.

Generally speaking, the fall films probably won’t be huge losers when it comes to recouping production costs, since many of the titles were made for reasonable budgets.

  • Even with all those September and October entries, the awards race remains wide open. There’s not one picture so far that seems to have galvanized the public.

Certainly, some have done solid enough box office business to be contenders, but they could need the boost of showing up on the National Board of Review’s list in early December, or on the critics’ lists that follow soon after. Tony Gilroy’s “Clayton,” Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” and Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” are among those players, not to mention “Yuma” and possibly Warner Independent’s “In the Valley of Elah.”

But there are also plenty of broken hearts. Universal had high hopes for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” just as DreamWorks-Paramount was looking to “Things We Lost in the Fire,” but poor box office performance will surely impact those plans. New Line’s “Rendition” also is struggling.

Likewise, Universal’s “The Kingdom” has done only moderately at the box office, diminishing the film’s awards chances. Nor will Warners likely do any big push for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” “Reservation Road” also appears DOA.

This could put tremendous pressure on awards contenders still waiting to bow, though the upcoming release calendar has slightly more breathing room. Among the most talked-about titles are “Gangster,” Focus’ “Atonement,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” DreamWorks-Paramount Vantage’s “The Kite Runner” and Vantage’s “There Will Be Blood.”

Searchlight could have a sleeper hit in quirky dramedy “Juno,” which debuts in early December, since it offers a refuge from more serious fare. DreamWorks-Paramount also will offer something different with Tim Burton’s Johnny Depp starrer “Sweeney Todd.”

  • Should some of the dramas have been released later, in November and December?

Usually, studio specialty arms and indie distribs don’t open so many awards contenders in September and October, out of fear that their films will be forgotten. Nor do they particularly want to go in summer and end up overshadowed by studio tentpoles.

This mentality has begun to shift, however, with the shortened awards window. Also, “Crash” was able to win the Oscar for best pic despite being released in May, while “Little Miss Sunshine,” released in the summer, got a best pic nom.

In that event, why shouldn’t distribs take advantage of September and October?

But there’s a major problem — these aren’t the biggest moviegoing months, whereas theater traffic picks up during the extended Thanksgiving-Christmas frame.

Summer could arguably be better than early fall, since it is the biggest moviegoing window of the entire year and often in need of adult counterprogramming.

  • Based on casting alone, the fall looked like a good shot. Not so. Big names didn’t seem to matter, if the subject matter put people off.

Take “Rendition,” which toplines Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep. Film debuted Oct. 19 at only $4 million.

DreamWorks-Paramount’s “Things We Lost in the Fire,” opening the same weekend and starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, also fared poorly, grossing just $1.6 million. Par and DreamWorks decided to go wide with the film, instead of a limited release, because of Berry and Del Toro’s names.

Filmgoers may admire Cate Blanchett, but she wasn’t enough reason for filmgoers to turn out for Universal-Working Title sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which opened at $6 million. Brad Pitt starrer “The Assassination of Jesse James…” also has not found a wide audience.

n Some fall films seem to bleed together, whether in casting or storyline. In other words — been there, done that.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in two sibling specialty pics; Sidney Lumet’s dark drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which bowed in limited release on Oct. 26, and Fox Searchlight’s dramedy “The Savages,” which debuts in early November. (Hoffman also stars in Mike Nichols’ much-hyped “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which debuts Christmas day.)

Streep stars in two politically themed movies, “Rendition,” and opposite Tom Cruise and Robert Redford in “Lions for Lambs,” which Redford directed.

United Artists and MGM bow “Lions” on Nov. 9. There’s plenty of curiosity about how the film will fare, with Cruise’s name on the marquee. It also is the first release from UA, now run by Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner.

There are other examples of thesps appearing in multiple titles. Joaquin Phoenix starred both in Sony’s “We Own the Night,” which opened to adequate numbers Oct. 12, and Focus Features’ limited entry “Reservation Road,” which bowed dismally just one week later Oct. 19.

Actors appearing in multiple films can muddy the waters when tub-thumping a film, or awards campaigning. Initially, Russell Crowe wanted to limit the press he did for “3:10 to Yuma,” since his entourage planned to focus more on “American Gangster” in terms of awards campaigning. That changed when “Yuma” performed surprisingly well. (Universal released “Gangster” on Nov. 2.)

There’s also the problem of similar-sounding titles, such as Miramax’s “Gone Baby Gone,” which debuted Oct. 19, and the Weinstein Co.’s “Grace Is Gone” (“Grace” opens in November). There also were “We Own the Night” and “30 Days of Night” — both from the same studio, Sony.

n Finally, it wasn’t a happy moment for the competish when Disney’s annual re-release of Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D,” opening on Oct. 19, racked up a cume of $10 million in its first 10 days in release. The re-release of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is also doing brisk business.

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