Box office battles Middle East fatigue

Audiences resisting downbeat films about war

The rollout is still in its early stages, but so far moviegoers aren’t rushing out to see pics tackling the thorny subject of Middle East conflict and its effects, no matter how hard studios try to overcome their resistance.

While the first wave of pics on the subject has garnered positive critical notices, their star power, pounding action sequences and heart-tugging drama haven’t been enough to break through at the box office, casting doubt on the prospects for those yet to come.

Universal did everything it could to position “The Kingdom,” pushing back its debut by five months to later in the year and giving it a sneak preview to build word of mouth as an action movie. But even as reviews remarked on how realistic the film is, moviegoers showed little appetite for such fare. The $70 million pic bowed below the studio’s tempered expectations and now seems destined for a loss.

Warner Independent’s more intimate “In the Valley of Elah” had an even quieter Sept. 14 bow, and has eked out just $5.7 million despite Tommy Lee Jones‘ crackling perf as a father investigating his son’s disappearance Stateside after returning from combat.

Paramount Vantage also learned the dangers of trying to make films about the region too realistic: Faced with concerns about the safety of some of the child actors in “The Kite Runner,” it pushed the pic’s debut until Dec. 14, which is after one of the boys’ school year ends.

Studios are hoping upcoming pics touching on the subject of the Middle East conflicts aren’t caught in the crossfire as well. Here’s a look at their prospects on the B.O. battlefield based on early buzz:

  • “Rendition,” New Line, Oct. 19

On the plus side: Star power courtesy Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Then again: But not necessarily their best perfs; earnest.

  • “Lions for Lambs,” UA, Nov. 9

On the plus side: Star power again, this time in the form of Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and, once again, Streep.

Then again: A bit preachy — director-star Redford plays a professor — and Cruise’s perf may not be for everybody.

  • “Redacted,” Magnolia, Nov. 16

On the plus side: Helmer Brian De Palma got his pic into several fests, ratcheting up exposure.

Then again: The film got a mixed reception from festgoers; De Palma’s fight with his distributor does not bode well.

  • “Grace Is Gone,” the Weinstein Co., Dec. 7

On the plus side: Strong buzz from Sundance; heart-tugging story about a father who must tell his daughters their mother died in the Iraq war.

Then again: Smaller movie; bummer premise.

  • “The Kite Runner,” Par Vantage, Dec. 14

On the plus side: Based on a bestseller by Khaled Hosseini; not about the conflicts per se.

Then again: It’s still set in the region and already clouded by controversy; some find it talky.

  • “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Universal, Dec. 25

On the plus side: A bevy of heavyweights signed up for this one: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts star, Mike Nichols directs, and Aaron Sorkin penned the script. And it’s set in the 1980s, so less tied to the latest headlines.

Then again: U hedged its bets by piecing together financing from several entities; will auds respond to a satire set in the Mideast?

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