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Hollywood lightens up fall schedule

'08 slate puts breaks on dramatic summer

Majors and their specialty arms are working to shake up the September-December stretch, after the post-summer traumas of 2007. But the question is: After a bang-up summer this year, can the studios keep up the pace?

Traditionally, Hollywood mixes crowd-pleasers and awards hopefuls in the lucrative Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s period.

The majors promise that this year, the fall crop will be more accessible than in 2007. And while majors always dominate the late-year box office, they are also vowing to overshadow their specialty brethren in the ’08 kudos races.

The final phase of 2008 begins unofficially with the Sept. 12 release of “Burn After Reading,” which Focus Features deemed commercial enough to go wide. Pic, which stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton, offers a comedic twist on the violence in the Coen brothers’ last movie, the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.”

Studios are going lighter on political fare. DreamWorks/ Paramount offers the Shia LaBeouf action thriller “Eagle Eye,” on Sept. 26. That’s in contrast to the film that opened on the same weekend last year, Universal’s political actioner “The Kingdom,” which debuted to so-so results and topped out at $47.5 million.

“Kingdom” was among a bevy of fall titles directly taking on the war in Iraq or President Bush’s war on terrorism, including Warner Independent Pictures’ “In the Valley of Elah” and Tom Cruise-Robert Redford-Meryl Streep starrer “Lions for Lambs,” from United Artists.

For the most part, auds weren’t interested in that much reality. This fall, there will be films with political tones, but studios believe they offer more entertainment value, including Ridley Scott’s Leonardo DiCaprio-Russell Crowe thriller “Body of Lies.” Warner Bros. film, opening Oct. 10, is about a CIA operative who tracks down a terrorist in Jordan.

Many in Hollywood believe that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic “W.,” toplining Josh Brolin, also has box office potential,much as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” did. Lionsgate releases “W.” on Oct. 17, just before the U.S. presidential election, in a limited run before expanding.

There is only one specialty film this fall directly dealing directly with the war on Iraq, Neil Burger’s “The Lucky Ones,” starring Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins and opening Sept. 26. Pic is distribbed by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate.

Some blame last year’s lackluster fourth quarter on a glut of specialty product. Some of these titles even opened wide, blurring the distinction between a specialty title and a studio pic. Films like “Eastern Promises” had to fight hard not to get lost.

A small cadre of awards contenders — “No Country for Old Men,” “Michael Clayton,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Atonement” and “Juno” — did do solid box office biz, but “Juno” was the only one to enjoy runaway success, grossing $143.5 million domestically. This fall sees up to 20% fewer studio and studio specialty arm pics debuting, mostly because several distribs shuttered.

Among prestige titles slotted for fall are Warner/New Line’s Viggo Mortensen-Renee Zellweger Western “Appaloosa”; Miramax’s Mark Ruffalo-Julianne Moore starrer “Blindness”; Sony Pictures Classics’ “Synecdoche, New York,” directed by Charlie Kaufman; Clint Eastwood’s Angelina Jolie drama “Changeling”; Warners’ Danny Boyle-directed “Slumdog Millionaire”; and Focus Features’ “Milk,” from director Gus Van Sant, toplining Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.

It wasn’t just dramas and specialty films that suffered last fall. Studio movies that failed to take off included family fantasy adventure “The Golden Compass,” Ben Stiller comedy “The Heartbreak Kid” and laffer “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” Jodie Foster vigilante pic “The Brave One” also fell flat.

Only a handful of studio titles made it past $200 million, including “I Am Legend,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”

Studios have some potential big guns waiting in the wings, led by Sony and MGM’s James Bond installment “Quantum of Solace,” which opens Nov. 14, and 20th Century Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” opening Dec. 12. Fox also is looking to Baz Luhrmann’s Hugh Jackman-Nicole Kidman epic “Australia,” bowing Nov. 26.

The family market could generate substantial box office coin if DreamWorks Animation sequel “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” pays off on its Nov. 7 opening. The first “Madagascar,” released in May 2005, grossed just north of $193 million domestically.

Two weeks after “Madagascar,” Disney opens dog toon “Bolt” on Nov. 21. Next month, Mouse House releases family pic “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” on Oct. 3, while Fox-Walden unspools fantasy “City of Ember” Oct. 10. U bows Christmas toon “The Tale of Despereaux” on Dec. 19.

Studios also are reaching out to the increasingly lucrative tween/teen aud. When Warner Bros. pushed back the release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” from Thanksgiving to next summer, Summit jumped at the chance to release teen vampire pic “Twilight” on Nov. 21. On Oct. 24, the Mouse House releases the first theatrical outing for the TV megafranchise “High School Musical 3.”

Christmas will be all-out slugfest as five films open on Christmas Day — Disney’s Adam Sandler laffer “Bedtime Stories,” Paramount’s Pitt-Cate Blanchett starrer “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Fox’s Jennifer Aniston-Owen Wilson romantic comedy “Marley and Me,” Frank Miller’s “The Spirit,” from Lionsgate, and MGM sports drama “Hurricane Season,” starring Forest Whitaker.

That’s on top of pre-Christmas releases “Seven Pounds,” starring Will Smith, and Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man,” both of which open Dec. 19. On Dec. 26, United Artists/MGM’s Tom Cruise Nazi drama “Valkyrie” enters the fray.

Outside of Christmas, however, the calendar between now and the end of the year is more lean than last, when distributors learned that more isn’t always better. In fact, too much product can actually depress the entire market, and hurt overall B.O. revs. They’ll now have a chance to test that theory.

Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.

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