Crush of star-driven Yule films raise angst

If more is better, this Christmas is blessed.

There are nine wide-release studio pics set to open over the course of the two-week Christmas session in a star-studded showdown that will strain the system and test just how much the marketplace can expand.

They’re not all merry and bright, either. Moviegoers will have to choose carefully if they want to avoid drama and death; three of the world’s biggest stars play characters who kick the bucket.

And don’t forget 20th Century Fox’s Keanu Reeves starrer “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the action-packed holiday tentpole that opens Dec. 12, the same weekend Christmas 2007 blockbuster “I Am Legend” debuted.

The year-end holiday is always crowded, but generally, there’s more of a glut on the specialty side. In recent years, Christmas week has seen four or five studio releases, which the holiday sesh can accommodate. Last year, the count jumped to eight — on its way to nine this year.

Why would studios create this kind of gridlock? It’s because the two-week Christmas-to-New Year stretch is the biggest grossing frame of the year.

“You have to take a chance, because Christmas is a time when both adults and kids are available,” says one marketing topper. “It’s like crack. You have to try and get some.”

One wild card that could benefit the film biz: Penny-pinched Americans might stick closer to home this year, meaning an uptick in theater traffic, similar to the summer.

The Christmas frame officially kicks off Dec. 19 with the release of Sony’s Will Smith drama “Seven Pounds,” Warner Bros.’ Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man” and Universal’s family toon “Lives of Despereaux.”

On the specialty side, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” and Fox Searchlight’s Mickey Rourke starrer “The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, enter the market in limited runs.

On Dec. 25, five films open nationwide: the Adam Sandler family comedy “Bedtime Stories,” from Disney; David Fincher’s Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett starrer “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” from Paramount and Warner Bros.; Frank Miller’s bigscreen comicbook adaptation “The Spirit,” from Lionsgate; MGM/Dimension’s feel-good sports drama “Hurricane Season,” starring Forest Whitaker; and Fox’s “Marley & Me,” toplining Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.

The next day, MGM/United Artists opens Bryan Singer’s Tom Cruise starrer “Valkyrie” across the country. Also opening Dec. 26 in a limited run is DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Revolutionary Road,” directed by Sam Mendes, which reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since “Titanic.”

Thanksgiving also is crowded, although not as jam-packed as Christmas. That’s due to the fact that Warner Bros. pushed back the release of the next “Harry Potter” installment to 2009. On Nov. 26, the day before Thanksgiving, Fox opens Baz Luhrmann’s Hugh Jackman-Nicole Kidman epic “Australia,” while Warners opens Vince Vaughn-Reese Witherspoon comedy “Four Christmases.” Lionsgate will go after young males with “Transporter 3.” Sony’s “Quantum of Solace,” opening Nov. 14, also will be in play.

With so many titles, and so much talent, crowding the Christmas holiday marquee — Aronofsky, Aniston, Blanchett, Carrey, Cruise, Fincher, Mendes, Pitt, Sandler, Smith and Reeves — marketing a movie is going to be tougher than ever. Distribution execs will have to fight like junkyard dogs for screens.

Teams trying to get their movies featured in magazines and on TV news shows are going to have to compete not only with other studios, but with specialty awards contenders expanding over the Christmas holiday, including “Frost/Nixon,” “Doubt,” “The Reader” and “The Wrestler.”

There’s also the logistical nightmare of screening films for the media and awards voters.

Considering the economy, it’s doubtful studios will have an extra cash bounty to spend on marketing films. While there are no rumors about any of the films moving, that always could happen.

Theater owners have long urged Hollywood to spread movies out over the entire year instead of creating clusters.

“The wide release of nine movies during any week, even a big holiday, constitutes industry insanity. Exhibitors have cried out for more movies during the off-peak months, but we continue to get jammed in peak weeks,” National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian says.

Studio execs counter that not all the movies will make it, leaving room for others to bloom.

“There’s always a lot of hand-wringing at this time of year. Things tend to sort themselves out,” says a distribution honcho. “It will be survival of the fittest.”

On first glance, broad comedies like “Yes Man” and “Bedtime Stories” — “Marley & Me” also is being positioned as an all-audience comedy — would seem to have a big advantage, since they play to all four quadrants of the moviegoing audience. But they open less than seven days apart, meaning plenty of competition, assuming both movies work in their own right.

Over the summer, much was made of the showdown between comedies “Get Smart” and “The Love Guru.” Ultimately, “Get Smart” easily won, since “Guru” had poor word-of-mouth and reviews.

Both “Bedtime Stories” and “Yes Man” have fantastical storylines.

“Yes Man,” also starring Zooey Deschanel, revolves around a man who decides to say yes to everything, sort of the reverse of Carrey’s “Liar Liar.” “Bedtime Stories” follows a man whose life goes haywire when the bedtime stories he reads to his nephew come alive.

“Marley & Me” could be helped by the fact that it is distinctly different from Sandler’s and Carrey’s films. The film is based on the bestselling autobiography by journo John Grogan, and charts the bond between his family and their dog.

Even if “Marley & Me” has its bittersweet moment, it is still comedy, raising the question: Considering the state of the country, will more serious storylines work, or will lighter fare prevail?

Put another way, do people want to laugh or cry? Will they even be willing to cry for Will Smith, the world’s biggest box office star?

“Seven Pounds” is an intense drama that lacks a walk-off-into-the-sunset ending. Generally, Smith stars in four-quadrant, popcorn movies that attract young and old alike. “Seven Pounds” definitely isn’t that.

Sony’s hoping to replicate the success of Smith’s previous Christmas drama “Pursuit of Happyness,” a box office hit that grossed north of $162 million domestically.

Like “Seven Pounds,” “Benjamin Button” and “Valkyrie” feel like adult-skewing dramas that require some thought, although UA is positioning “Valkyrie” as more of a thriller.

“Benjamin Button” is a sizable gamble for Paramount and Warner Bros., which are partners on the project. The film cost north of $150 million to produce. Paramount, which is distributing domestically, is expected to mount an aggressive awards campaign for the film, which could also boost its box office potential.

“Button,” also starring Tilda Swinton, is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backwards. The film has a strong romantic thread running through it — potentially enticing a larger audience.

“Valkyrie” has been in the wings for months, with its release date changed several times, the last being when UA decided to open the film in time for awards consideration.

In some ways, Lionsgate is in an enviable position with “The Spirit,” the only Christmas movie that plays to fanboys, who presumably will have already seen “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” “The Spirit” stars Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Johnson and Scarlett Johansson, and is about a murdered cop who comes back to fight evil.

Box office results for last year’s crop of Christmas films was decidedly mixed. The Disney sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” easily found its stride and, along with Warners’ “I Am Legend,” was the big holiday grosser.

Universal’s “Charlie Wilson’s War” and DreamWorks/Paramount “Sweeney Todd” did OK box office biz, but failed to ignite audiences or awards voters.

Romancer “P.S. I Love You” did well in terms of reaching its intended demo — women, particularly older women — in what could spell good news for a film like “Marley & Me.”

Sony’s “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and the Weinstein Co.’s “The Great Debaters” came and went, while Sony’s family pic “Water Horse: Legend of the Deep” was muted in its performance.

Hollywood studios are leaving even more cookies out for Santa this year. The big question: Will they awake to find presents, or coal?

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