Studios expand winter film slates

Production for 2009 is being scaled back

Hollywood studios are scaling back production, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the multiplexes in the first part of 2009.

The first few months of the year were once a graveyard for the least promising fare, but ’09 is seeing a flood of titles entering the marketplace.

There are numerous reasons for the glut. With the summer and holiday frames jam-packed, the majors can no longer afford to save their best titles for those key dates. And studios are using the January-April period to open a cluster of pics that were put into production before the 2007-08 writers strike.

Studios’ investment and returns on these pics are more modest than on summer and year-end tentpoles, but profit margins can be substantial. Take two films released in March 2007: Warner Bros.’ “300,” with a budget of $65 million, grossed $456 million worldwide, and Disney’s modestly budgeted comedy “Wild Hogs” took in $170 million in North America.

Every studio wants to replicate such first-quarter successes, which means that in 2009, studios are slating like-genre films on virtually the same weekends that worked in the past.

n For example, if legal issues can be resolved, Warner Bros. is planning to open “Watchmen” in March, hoping to replicate the success of “300.”

n Disney has skedded “Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience,” on Feb. 27, the same time period that it released a 3-D Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana concert pic last year. The latter cost just under $10 million yet grossed more than $65 million domestically. (For good measure, the studio also has slated “Hannah Montana: The Movie” on April 10.)

n Last year, Fox enjoyed success by releasing “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who” as Easter approached. This year, DreamWorks has slated its 3-D tentpole toon “Monsters vs. Aliens” on March 27, two weeks before the holiday.

n On March 20, U opens the Clive Owen-Julia Roberts suspense thriller “Duplicity,” the same day as Summit Entertainment’s Nicolas Cage suspense drama “Knowing.” That’s the same weekend that Sony used in 2008 to debut modestly budgeted political thriller “Vantage Point,” which grossed a surprising strong $72 million domestically.

Studios are convinced that comedy works any time of the year. The first quarter’s avalanche of laffers — 16 in all — includes several femme-skewing pics spawned in the wake of the success of “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Sex and the City.” The comedy calendar is so packed that Paramount recently decided to push its spoof “Dance Flick” to August to duck the crowd.

The season will also see the traditional mass of horror titles, male-skewing actioners and thrillers.

And, as they have for some time, studios will carry over award contenders to capitalize on kudos season. Fox Searchlight’s “Juno” was released in late November 2007 and had grossed $38 million by Jan. 4. By April 11, the pic’s domestic cume had ballooned to $143.1 million.

On Jan. 9, Warner Bros. will take Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” nationwide after a limited run that began Dec. 12. It will be among a crop of contenders looking to parlay awards attention into box office coin, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Doubt,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon.”

In the past, Oscar hopefuls could bank on a season relatively free of competition. But Jan. 9 also is the date when the comedy train begins to roll, as 20th Century Fox opens Anne Hathaway-Kate Hudson comedy “Bride Wars,” the first of the fangirl films.

The record-breaking success of femme pics in 2008 is helping to fuel a proliferation of chick flicks, with every major wanting a piece of the action. (“Twilight” has cumed north of $150 million domestically, and it’s not even done with its run. “Sex and the City” also earned $150 million.)

Warners opens the Drew Barrymore-Jennifer Aniston-Scarlett Johansson starrer “He’s Just Not That Into You,” adapted from the self-help title, on Feb. 6. The next week brings the release of Disney’s Isla Fisher topliner “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” also based on a bestseller.

More romantic comedies include Lionsgate’s Renee Zellweger-Harry Connick Jr. starrer “New in Town” (Jan. 30) and Sony’s Gerard Butler-Katherine Heigl starrer “The Ugly Truth” (April 3).

Laffers will come in all shapes and sizes, beyond just chickpics. Comedy is even more key than usual, considering the bleak economy (just look at “Four Christmases,” which has exceeded expectations at the B.O.).

The trick will be in targeting different auds so that comedies don’t cannibalize each other.

On Jan. 16, two comedies open, only a week after the “Bride Wars” bow: DreamWorks/Par’s family laffer “Hotel for Dogs,” toplining Emma Roberts, and Sony’s more male-skewed “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” starring Kevin James and Erick Avari.

There is a slight lull until Feb. 6, when Sony opens Steve Martin-Emily Mortimer sequel “The Pink Panther 2” and Warners bows “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

The weekend of Feb. 20-22 sees three comedies opening; the Weinstein Co.’s Michael Cera topliner “Youth in Revolt,” Sony’s “Fired Up” and Lionsgate’s franchise entry “Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail.”

On March 20, DreamWorks/Paramount bows Paul Rudd-Jamie Pressly “I Love You, Man,” directed by John Hamburg. WB has two comedies opening within a week of each other; Seth Rogen-Anna Faris laffer “Observe and Report” (April 10) and Zac Efron-Matthew Perry topliner “17 Again” (April 17).

The release calendar is somewhat light when it comes to family films. In addition to “Monsters vs. Aliens,” there are Warner/New Line’s Brendan Fraser family adventure “Inkheart” (Jan. 23), Focus Features’ 3-D pic “Coraline” (Feb. 6) and DreamWorks/Par’s “Hotel for Dogs” (Jan. 23). “Inkheart” has seen only so-so early returns overseas.

Among actioners, thrillers and horror titles, there could be some dogfights, since the three genres can often target the same young aud.

On Jan. 30, Fox’s “Taken” and DreamWorks/Par’s “The Uninvited” open. “Taken,” billed as an action suspenser, toplines Liam Neeson as a father whose daughter has been kidnapped, while “The Uninvited,” toplining Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn and Elizabeth Banks, is an English-language remake of 2003 Korean hit “Janghwa hongryeon” (A Tale of Two Sisters).

Owen toplines not just in “Duplicity,” but also another thriller, Sony’s “The International,” co-starring Naomi Watts and opening Feb. 13. He stars as a spy-turned-corporate operative in the former and an Interpol agent in the latter.

Horror titles include Universal’s “The Unborn” (Jan. 9), directed by David S. Goyer, Lionsgate’s “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” (Jan. 16) and WB’s redux “Friday the 13th” (Feb. 13).

Male actioners include Universal’s “Fast and Furious” (April 3), the fourth pic in the franchised, and Lionsgate’s “Crank 2” (April 17).

In terms of straight-up adult dramas debuting in the first four months of 2009 — excluding carry-over titles from 2008 looking for an awards bounce — DreamWorks/Par opens the Robert Downey Jr.-Jamie Foxx starrer “The Soloist” April 24. (The film was pushed back from fourth-quarter 2008.) The summer box office season will begin May 1 with Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and “Soloist” hopes to serve as counterprogramming.

Even with signs that audiences are seeking out more first-quarter fare, Hollywood isn’t counting its winter and spring chickens just yet. But it certainly expects to lay a number of golden eggs.

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