After early fall fizzle, optimism over October

After early fall fizzle, optimism over October

October optimism: Despite the boxoffice year to date being up over 6%, three consecutive weekends of disappointing September ticket sales have put a damper on Hollywood spirits.

Not only was September a washout at the boxoffice, it also failed to generate momentum on the awards front. It's a double whammy that added up to an early fall fizzle. What's especially unfortunate is that given the boxoffice upturn this summer a strong September would have hammered home the idea that moviegoing has come back to life. Instead, September saw the arrival of several high profile films -- including "Hollywoodland" from Focus Features, "The Black Dahlia" from Universal and "All the King's Men" from Sony -- that all underperformed at the boxoffice.

At the same time, insiders who expected to see a high-profile awards front runner emerge from the Toronto International Film Festival were wrong. It was a complete surprise when the low-profile independent film "Bella" won Toronto's People's Choice Award. "Bella's" now in the process of putting a domestic distribution deal together and its win in Toronto should definitely help its prospects on the awards front.

Meanwhile, as September slips away to no one's regret, there's optimism over October with its seasonal mix of mostly awards hopefuls and horror thrillers. Looking at the product on tap suggests October could deliver a much healthier boxoffice than September did although October isn't typically a month that generates big boxoffice fireworks. A strong October would definitely be a welcome prelude to the upcoming holiday season.

On the awards front, there are very high hopes for Miramax's "The Queen," for which Helen Mirren has already won best actress honors at the Venice Film Festival for her performance as Elizabeth II. Mirren's likely to be a leading candidate for Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. There's also an early buzz for Michael Sheen's performance opposite her as British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, both of whom also are good bets to emerge as nominees, "The Queen" kicks off the New York Film Festival tonight, opens tomorrow in New York and begins its Los Angeles run Oct. 6.

When I saw "The Queen" in late August, it immediately struck me as a potential best picture nominee for Oscars and Globes. And that seems even more likely now with its fresh rating of 94% on RottenTomatoes.com's Tomatometer as of this writing. There's no question that the film is resonating in a big way with critics. If that translates into a wave of critics group awards in December, it would be a tremendous boost to "The Queen's" prospects for Oscar and Globe nods, just as it was in past years for "Sideways" and "Brokeback Mountain."

At the same time that "The Queen" arrives in L.A., Warner Bros. and Initial Entertainment's "The Departed," directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg, will be opening wide. The R-rated crime drama set in South Boston has the star power to make a major boxoffice impact and if it does that would certainly help get October off on the right foot in terms of ticket sales. Although Scorsese's been Oscar nominated five times for directing ("Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Goodfellas," "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator"), he's never taken home an Academy Award. "The Departed's" being buzzed about more for its boxoffice potential than for awards consideration, but sight unseen at this writing with the talents involved, it might also attract nominations. In 2004, Clint Eastwood's well-regarded Boston-set crime drama "Mystic River," which had an 86% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, received six Oscar nominations, including best picture and director. It won for best actor (Sean Penn) and best supporting actor (Tim Robbins).

Horror genre sequels are always a good bet these days to generate boxoffice action and that should be the case with New Line's R-rated "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," also opening wide Oct. 6. New Line's R-rated "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" opened Oct. 17, 2003 to $28.1 million. It reportedly cost $9.5 million to produce and went on to gross over $80 million domestically.

The weekend of Oct. 6-8 should outperform the comparable weekend last year when the number one film was DreamWorks' $16 million opening of the animated feature "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit."

Oct. 13 will see Sony's horror thriller sequel "The Grudge 2" kick off in wide release. Its PG-13 rating will make it accessible to a wider audience than the R rated "Texas." It should also benefit from having some good star power on the marketing trail in Sarah Michelle Gellar, who starred in the 2004 original. The first "Grudge," which reportedly cost only $10 million, opened Oct. 22, 2004 to $39.1 million and wound up doing over $110 million domestically.

Moviegoers who'd prefer comedy to horror can opt to see Universal and Morgan Creek's PG-13 comedy "Man of the Year," directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robin Williams and Christopher Walken, opening wide Oct. 13. And those who want action adventure can choose 20th Century Fox's "The Marine," a PG-13 drama about a Marine who after being held hostage in Iraq comes home to find his wife's been kidnapped by a diamond thief. Directed by John Bonito, it stars John Cena, Kelly Carlson and Robert Patrick and also opens wide Oct. 13.

The weekend of Oct. 13-15 should also outperform the comparable weekend last year when the number one film was Sony's "The Fog," which arrived to just $11.8 million.

Oct. 20 should see major boxoffice action with Paramount and DreamWorks' opening of the World War II action drama "Flags of Our Fathers," a film that's also likely to attract major awards consideration. Directed by Eastwood (an Oscar winner for directing the best picture Oscar winner "Unforgiven" and for directing the best picture Oscar winner "Million Dollar Baby") and written by William Broyles Jr. (an Oscar nominee for co-writing the best picture Oscar nominee "Apollo 13") and Paul Haggis (an Oscar winner for writing the best picture Oscar winner "Crash," for which he also received a best director nomination, and an Oscar nominee for writing the best picture Oscar winner "Million Dollar Baby"), the R-rated "Flags" stars Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach. There are very high sight-unseen hopes for "Flags" despite the fact that it reportedly features some tough-to-watch battlefield action.

The weekend of Oct. 20-22 will be jam-packed with four other wide openings and three limited runs all carving up the audience that isn't at "Flags." The wide hopefuls include: MGM and The Weinstein Company's PG-13 action adventure "DOA: Dead Or Alive," revolving around four voluptuous girls with unique fighting styles who participate in a combat tournament on an exotic island; Fox's PG-rated family drama "Flicka" about a wild mustang adopted by a young girl; Sony's period piece drama and awards hopeful "Marie Antoinette," written and directed by Sofia Coppola (an Oscar winner for writing the original screenplay for "Lost in Translation" and an Oscar nominee for directing the film) and starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman and Judy Davis; and Disney's PG-13 suspense thriller "The Prestige," directed by Christopher Nolan (an Oscar nominee for co-writing the original screenplay for "Memento," which he directed) and starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson.

Oct. 20's limited openings include: TriStar Pictures' R-rated comedy drama "Running With Scissors," an awards hopeful written and directed by Ryan Murphy and starring Annette Bening, Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes; The Weinstein Company's documentary "Shut Up & Sing," an Oscar hopeful directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck about the controversial Dixie Chicks band; and Disney's re-release of its 1993 animated family musical "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas."

The weekend of Oct. 20-22 seems a safe bet to outperform the comparable weekend a year ago when the number one film was Universal's opening of "Doom" with only $15.5 million.

October could end on a strong note on both the boxoffice and awards fronts with three wide openings, one major limited break and two expansions on Oct. 27. The wide releases include: Focus Features' PG-13-rated awards potential drama "Catch A Fire," directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke, the real life story of South African hero Patrick Chamusso's struggle for freedom; TriStar's wide release of "Running With Scissors" (see above); and Lionsgate's R-rated horror sequel "Saw III." The second "Saw" episode opened Oct. 28, 2005 to $31.7 million and ended up doing over $87 million domestically.

On the limited release front, Oct. 27 will see: Paramount Vantage's R-rated awards hopeful drama "Babel," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, written by Guillermo Arriaga and starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal; Lionsgate's documentary "Deliver Us From Evil," written and directed by Amy Berg, the story of a pedophile priest in Northern California; and Warner Independent Pictures' R-rated awards hopeful drama "Infamous," written and directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Craig in a new version of the story of how Truman Capote came to write "In Cold Blood."

It won't be easy for the weekend of Oct. 27-29 to outperform the very strong comparable weekend last year when the number one film was Lionsgate's "Saw II" launch with $31.7 million and the second place title was Sony's $16.3 million opening of "The Legend of Zorro." But if "Saw III" cuts itself a bigger slice of boxoffice pie than the second "Saw" did and if "Flags" holds well and is waving high on the chart in its second weekend, October could wind up as the perfect transition to a happy holiday season.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Mar. 23, 1988's column: "As important as a film's periods of production and postproduction are, its time in preproduction is especially meaningful. It is at this time that screenplays are shaped and directors finalize their plans before, in effect, going into battle.

"From time to time, however, events occur that dramatically shorten the time available for preproduction. Such was the case with MGM/UA's 'Bright Lights, Big City,' which had been filming for about a month under director Joyce Chopra ('Smooth Talk') before production was shut down and James Bridges agreed to come on board to direct...

"'It was the novel,' (Bridges) told me, referring to the Jay McInerney book published in 1980. 'When it first came out I had read a review of it in The New York Times and called my agent and asked who had it. It had already been bought by Columbia and already had a director on it. But it was the novel. When they called and said this film was in trouble, I re-read it and got very excited and went back and decided to do it.'

"When 'Bright' was owned by Columbia -- where in 1984 then-production vice president Robert Lawrence had advocated making it -- there were plans for Jerry Weintraub to produce it. Joel Schumacher ('St. Elmo's Fire') was to direct, and Tom Cruise was in line to star if he approved the screenplay being written by McInerney. When Weintraub subsequently left independent production to become chairman of United Artists, 'Bright' followed him to MGM/UA. Since Weintraub could no longer produce it, new producers came aboard -- Sydney Pollack and Mark Rosenberg. By that point Schumacher and Cruise were going on to other things and Weintraub left UA after a falling out with principal shareholder Kirk Kerkorian. 'Bright' nearly went with Weintraub, but wound up staying at UA.

"Joyce Chopra was hired to direct and Tom Cole, her husband, was given the assignment to write a new screenplay for 'Bright.' On the casting front, Michael J. Fox was brought in to star. Ultimately, production got under way and with it came creative differences between Chopra and UA that led to her departure.

"'Actually, I didn't take the picture over,' explains Bridges. 'I went back (to New York) and I wanted to make sure that everything had been shut down. It was a very clean setup. They had shut the picture down. I only had one week to prep the picture -- but it was such an interesting book. I felt that it was like getting a chance to do something like 'Catcher in the Rye...

"'When I came in Jay McInerney was off in Europe,' Bridges recalls. 'I wrote a script based on his first draft and his novel. I was very faithful to the novel. He came back from Europe and I asked that they put him on as a co-writer with me. We worked together. When we submitted the script to the Writers Guild for arbitration we had both our names on it. The Writers Guild took his script and my name did not appear on the credit. I appealed. I felt that it was unfair and I still feel that it's unfair.'"

Update: As it turned out, "Bright" did not have a bright future. It opened Apr. 1, 1988 to $5.1 million at 1,196 theaters ($4,286 per theater) and went on to gross about $16.1 million domestically. It ranked 38th for the year in terms of domestic cumes.
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