Films need kick in year-end

Hollywood banks on box office rebound

On the fourth day of Christmas, Hollywood sent to auds: Four would-be tentpoles, three prestige films, two kiddie pics and a musical on the marquee.

Throughout Hollywood, studios are gift-wrapping their holiday releases in marketing campaigns worth hundreds of millions of dollars, anxious to recharge the domestic box office after an especially brutal September and October that was overpopulated with serious adult dramas.

It’s a challenging task.

There’s only one franchise title: the Disney sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which opens Dec. 21.

The other obvious big opener of the sesh is Warner Bros.’ Will Smith starrer “I Am Legend,” set to unspool Dec. 14. (How the sci-fi thriller performs after its initial weekend is less clear, since few have seen it.)

These two titles, along with Disney’s princess tale “Enchanted,” which bows Nov. 21, and New Line’s fantasy adventure “The Golden Compass,” opening Dec. 7, could potentially rack up the big grosses that have come to define the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas stretch.

A question mark is Universal’s Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the Mike Nichols-directed film that opens Christmas Day. With those names, it could be a formidable contender, even though it is a story of politics and U.S. foreign policy.

Studio execs are keeping their fingers crossed that they can make up for ground they lost this fall. While the box office is still up year-to-date, the fall is running 6% behind last year.

“I think we’ll have a better Thanksgiving and Christmas than we did last year,” says one studio distribution topper.

The biggest grosser during the 2006 holiday season was the toon “Happy Feet,” which took in a domestic haul of $176 million by Dec. 31. The Bond installment “Casino Royale” rang out the year with a domestic cume of $153.5 million, and family entry “Night at the Museum,” at $115.8 million. (All of those films took in even more cash during the early weeks of the new year.)

But there remain plenty of obstacles for the 2007 holiday slate.

“I think the movies might be strong, but the marketing challenges are plenty,” says another studio exec. “Also, everyone is so distracted. Between the strike and everything else that’s going on, it’s like all these movies are happening in an alternate universe.”

Outside of the biggest titles, there’s a stockingful of pics that studios hope will be solid players, further helping to shore up the box office. Some could even break out.

They include Paramount’s Robert Zemeckis-helmed 3-D entry “Beowulf,” Fox’s male-skewing “The Hitman,” MGM/Dimension Films horror title “The Mist,” Sony laffer “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and Warner Bros.’ romantic comedy “P.S. I Love You.”

Being kid-centric, Fox’s live-action/CGI combo “Alvin and the Chipmunks” has the potential of being a sleeper hit. “Chipmunks,” directed by “Garfield” helmer Tim Hill, opens Dec. 14.

Another family entry, Sony-Walden Media’s “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep,” opens Christmas Day.

Then there’s the herd of awards contenders looking for box office recognition, such as DreamWorks-WB’s “Sweeney Todd,” Fox Searchlight’s quirky dramedy “Juno,” Paramount Vantage’s Daniel Day-Lewis starrer “There Will Be Blood” and the MGM/Weinstein Co.’s Denzel Washington-helmed “The Great Debaters,” among others. So far, there hasn’t been a runaway hit among the flood of prestige titles, meaning it’s still an open awards season (see separate stories).

After the record-breaking summer, no one was prepared for the across-the-board slump. A number of the most-anticipated fall films sorely disappointed.

Some attributed the downturn to a glut of filmswhich will peak Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving, when there will be seven wide releases. That’s more than anyone in Hollywood can remember for the T-day sesh.

It’s unlikely that any of those seven movies will pony huge opening numbers, but at least one, “Enchanted,” could play strongly into the new year and see a significant box office haul.

A creative twist on the traditional Disney princess tale, “Enchanted” stars Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon.

This year, the bigscreen adaptation of “Hairspray” and “Across the Universe” once again reminded Hollywood of the power of the female moviegoer. Girls went to see both films again and again.

Touting broad appeal to both genders is “I Am Legend.” The big-budget spectacle, set in New York, is about the lone survivor of a virus that transforms humans into zombie-like mutants.

There’s no mystery to the potential of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” The sequel reteams Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger and Jon Voight, as well as featuring several additions to the cast, including Helen Mirren and Ed Harris.

The original “National Treasure,” bowing over Thanksgiving in 2004, opened to $55 million and eventually grossed $173 million domestically.

While “Book of Secrets,” “Legend” and “Enchanted” have obvious commercial hooks, “Charlie Wilson’s War” (which also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a more complicated proposition.

Can “War” overcome auds’ resistance to films about U.S. foreign policy and the post-9/11 world, however entertaining or dressed up?

The film, based on the best-selling book by George Crile and adapted for the bigscreen by Aaron Sorkin, tells the real-life story of a boozy, playboy U.S. congressman who joined forces with a rogue CIA officer and right-wing Texas socialite to fund the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

Helping those rebels, of course, were Osama bin Laden and other Muslims flooding into Afghanistan to carry out a jihad. And some of those rebels would eventually form the Taliban.

Universal execs and some who have seen early screenings of the film say it is far more entertaining than the other fall films taking varying views of U.S. foreign policy and the war on terror. The film is said to run under 100 minutes.

New Line’s fantasy adventure “Golden Compass” also is a gamble. Based on Philip Pullman’s book trilogy, the storyline follows a young girl who enlists the help of talking bears and other animals living in an alternate reality to rescue her friend — and the world — from demonic and dogmatic forces.

The ensemble cast includes Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott and Eva Green.

While Pullman’s books take aim at the Catholic Church, the film adaptation steers clear of such specific references. Still, honchos at the Catholic League — who haven’t seen the film — are calling for a boycott of “Compass,” saying it could inspire children to read the books.

New Line, which has suffered at the box office of late, has a great deal riding on the big-budget epic. The studio, home of the wildly successful “Lord of the Rings” trio, needs a new franchise.

In fact, it was Peter Jackson’s “LOTR” films that helped set the bar incredibly high for the Christmas box office.

The first installment, debuting in December 2001, grossed $164 million domestically. Bowing in December 2002, the second grossed $218.6 million at the domestic box office. The final installment opened in December 2003, grossing $294.4 million domestically.

Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter” franchise has worked similar magic on the Thanksgiving box office. This year, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” came out in the summer.

Sans the boy wizard or “LOTR,” the end-of-the-year holiday frame has once again become open season — for better, or worse.

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