Hollywood sticks to familiar strategies in pursuit of boost

After a year of surprises and risks that paid off big-time at the box office, from “Taken” to “The Hangover” to “Paranormal Activity,” the majors are playing it safe during the holidays.

The year-end release calendar looks surprisingly similar to last year’s: Almost the same number of major releases, the usual number of Christmas Day launches, the same mix of “prestige” items and popcorn fare.

Because of the similarities, this Yuletide season could bring in returns very similar to last year. But there is an 800-pound gorilla: 20th Century Fox’s 3D “Avatar,” opening Dec. 18.

Exhibs and distribs hope James Cameron’s much-publicized pic will help lure people out of their homes and fuel across-the-board moviegoing, not only during the holidays, but into the New Year.

But Cameron’s pic — his first since the $1.8 billion-grossing “Titanic” — is not the only studio heavyweight to bow in the November-December period.

The holiday season got off to an unofficial start Nov. 6 with “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” and will include two sequels that are raising the hopes of exhibs: Summit’s “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel.”

Despite those familiar titles and other pics with major stars, there are no guarantees. Any B.O. season rests on the strength of the movies themselves and the mantra this season is: Don’t blow it.

The box office this year is running ahead of 2008 by 7.8%. Even accounting for higher ticket prices, if it’s a good holiday season, 2009 could hit a socko record.

The omens are promising. Moviegoing has maintained record levels since the collapse of the economy in fall 2008. Even on overcrowded weekends, the marketplace has expanded to accommodate more titles. Despite some fears about the overabundance of new titles on the weekend of Oct. 23, B.O. revs were up 38%, with a number of films benefiting.

That’s good news, as there are four biggies bowing on Christmas Day. In addition to “Alvin,” there’s Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law; Universal’s Nancy Meyers comedy “It’s Complicated,” starring Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin; and Paramount’s “Up in the Air,” directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, broadening after its limited run starting Dec. 4.

There could be a fifth, as Weinstein Co.’s tuner “Nine,” with a stellar cast, could broaden on Christmas after its Dec. 18 platform bow.

Last year, some exhibs fretted over distributors’ decisions to open a record five films nationwide on Christmas Day: “Bedtime Stories,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Marley and Me,” “The Spirit” and “Valkyrie.”

For the most part, however, there was a surprising lack of cannibalization, with four of those five earning more than $60 million in their first week (“Marley” led the pack domestically with $112.4 million by Jan. 1).

Last year, ticket sales for the two-week Christmas stretch (Dec. 19-Jan. 1) totally $595.7 million domestically.

Following the don’t-mess-with-success formula, Summit Entertainment will open “New Moon,” the second installment in the blockbuster, female-driven franchise, on Nov. 20. That’s the same slot as last year’s “Twilight,” which grossed $383.7 million at the worldwide box office.

Sony will counterprogram with toon “Planet 51″ and Warners will open the Sandra Bullock sports drama “The Blind Side” on Nov. 20.

The day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, Disney opens the Robin Williams-John Travolta comedy “Old Dogs,” director Walter Becker’s follow-up to sleeper “Wild Hogs,” which grossed $168.3 million domestically and $85.5 million overseas. The studio also offers a limited bow of “The Princess and the Frog” on that day.

After its success with Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” last Dec. 12, Warners will release his “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, on Dec. 11, the same day “The Princess and the Frog” goes wide.

Also bowing that day is Paramount’s limited release of the Peter Jackson-helmed “The Lovely Bones,” which widens nationwide Jan. 15.

Those are two of the pics being buzzed as awards contenders, and that’s the area when this year-end season differs from seasons past: There are fewer kudos hopefuls from the indies and the studios’ specialty arms.

That’s partly because many of those distribs have disappeared from the scene. Other specialty arms have changed strategies. Fox Searchlight, after ruling the awards roost last year with the November and December releases “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler,” has only “Crazy Heart,” starring Colin Farrell and Jeff Bridges and directed by Scott Cooper, slated for Dec. 16. The studio announced that date just last week.

Parent company Fox interestingly, releases “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in a limited run on Nov. 13 — a film that could be described as mass-appeal (a family film based on a popular Roald Dahl story) and an auteur pic (from Wes Anderson).

Focus Features only has one release skedded, “Pirate Radio,” which opens Nov. 13. And Miramax has Robert De Niro starrer “Everybody’s Fine,” which bows Dec. 4.In place of the dearly departed (Warner Independent, Par Vantage), there are relative newcomers, such as Summit and Overture. Overture has awards contenders, but not in this time frame.

And Bob Berney’s newbie Apparition bows “The Young Victoria” on Dec. 18.

Stalwart specialty distribs Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Co. have a few promising releases.

Lionsgate bowed “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” in 18 theaters on Nov. 6.

TWC has “The Road,” opening Nov. 25, Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” bowing Dec. 11, and Rob Marshall’s musical “Nine,” debuting Dec. 18.

SPC’s upcoming titles are “Broken Embraces” (Nov. 20) and “The White Ribbon” (Dec. 30).So the season will have three big tests. The first is the strength of the indies and specialty divisions, which have had a tough time this past year. But the awards attention may provide the shot of adrenaline the sector needs.

The second question is 3D. For two years, “Avatar” has been touted as the title that will finally and firmly usher in the 3D era. So the questions are whether there are enough screens to maximize the profit potential, and exactly how successful the film can be.

And the third question is one that hovers over everything this year: the economy. As Christmas falls on a Friday, will filmgoing continue its torrid pace, or will all the other entertainment options begin to take their toll?

Happy holidays!

Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.

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