Searching for sleeper hits among summer sequels

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Summer sleeper? In a summer driven by sequels to franchises like "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates," it's interesting to ponder if we'll have a sleeper hit and, if so, what it could be?

There was a time when sleepers were routine and you'd expect to find one hidden away somewhere in mid-to-late summer. By definition, a sleeper was a film without the kind of star elements that would typically make you anticipate big boxoffice action. In other words -- no superstars, no directors with blockbuster credits, no high profile producers and no brand name source material like best-selling novels. They simply were movies that caught on with audiences and they wound up doing really well because word got around that they were really special and you just had to see them.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, picking summer sleepers was a fun guessing game for Hollywood handicappers. If you check out the Filmmaker Flashbacks section of today's column you'll find that in my June 26, 1989 column I made the fearless prediction -- which, happily, turned out to be correct -- that "When Harry Met Sally" would be the summer of '89's sleeper hit. I was on something of a roll at the time, having (as I pointed out in that report) been right a year earlier in picking "A Fish Called Wanda" to be the summer of '88's likely sleeper.

But picking sleepers back then was a lot easier than it is today. The marketplace has changed tremendously since 1989 and not only is there much more product competing for moviegoers' time and money now, but there's no certainty that any small film is going to be able to drum up the kind of business that would entitle it to be called a sleeper. This summer is more likely to see much more in terms of high profile mega-blockbuster success given the strong line up of product on deck right now.

Thus far, of course, we've seen spectacular presummer ticket sales for the third Spidey and Shrek episodes, both of which exceeded the wildest opening weekend dreams their distributors say they could have had for them. And the "real" summer is actually just beginning Friday with Disney's Memorial Day weekend launch of its third "Pirates of the Caribbean" episode. Here, too, you can anticipate buckets of gold doubloons turning up at boxoffices around the world.

"Pirates" will be followed by a long list of other sequels as well as a handful of originals from filmmakers who are brand names to moviegoers and these films could easily overwhelm any would-be sleepers. The sequels include: (1) Warner Bros.' "Ocean's Thirteen" (June 8), (2) 20th Century Fox's "Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" (June 15), (3) Universal's "Evan Almighty" (June 22), (4) Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard" (June 27), (5) Warner Bros.' 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (July 13), (6) Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum" (Aug. 3), (7) New Line's "Rush Hour 3" (Aug. 10), (8) Universal's "Mr. Bean's Holiday" (Aug. 24) and (9) Dimension Films and MGM's "Halloween 2007" (Aug. 31).

The summer's brand name nonsequel product includes: (1) Universal's "Knocked Up" (June 1), written and directed by Judd Apatow, whose summer of '05 blockbuster "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was targeted to the same youth audience; (2) Disney's "Ratatouille" (June 29), Pixar's latest computer animated family film; (3) DreamWorks and Paramount's "Transformers," whose profile is elevated thanks to its robot toy roots and director Michael Bay ("Bad Boys II;"), (4) New Line's "Hairspray," whose Broadway origins and stars John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer put it in the spotlight; (5) Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" (July 27), a household name after years as a hit TV series; (6) and Disney's animated "Underdog" (Aug. 3), which parents fondly remember watching as a TV cartoon series when they were kids.

When you take those 15 titles out of the summer marketplace, what's left that could emerge as a sleeper hit? Well, looking over the rest of the pack there are at least 10 interesting possibilities -- based on release schedules now circulating, but subject to change -- that might be able to fill the bill. As a group, thanks to their stars, filmmakers or subject matter they look like they have the potential to appeal to a large enough core audience to get word of mouth started. Moreover, most of these titles are targeted to young adults, the best possible demo a would-be sleeper can appeal to. This is an audience that likes movies, spends time and money to see them, lives on the Internet, sends text messages around the clock and responds quickly to the buzz about what's "hot."

(1) Fox Searchlight's PG-13 rated romantic comedy "Waitress" has been playing to encouraging limited business since opening May 2. It's cume is now over $2.4 million as it expands today (25) to 500-plus theaters. Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, it stars Keri Russell as an unhappy pregnant waitress in the Deep South. Although sleepers tend to open later in the summer, after the first waves of popcorn movies have come and played through for a while, if young adults, especially women, respond to "Waitress" as it widens it could dig in and have a shot at sleeper status.

(2) Sony's computer animated family film "Surf's Up" (June 8) is a mockumentary about surfing having been invented by penguins. Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, it's rated PG and features the voice talents of Shia La Beouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder and James Woods.

If families are eager to see another CGI feature -- remember, Disney and Pixar's "Ratatouille" doesn't open until June 29 -- and are still in love with penguins, "Surf's Up" could ride some big boxoffice waves and emerge as a family appeal sleeper.

(3) Paramount Vantage's biographical drama "A Mighty Heart" (June 22) is directed by Michael Winterbottom and stars Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman. The R rated story about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and his kidnapping and murder in Pakistan in 2002 has had tremendous global media attention since being shown at the Cannes Film Festival and Jolie's starring presence in the movie will also help to drive it at the domestic boxoffice. That could give it broad audience appeal and a good shot at claiming this summer's sleeper crown.

(4) Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co.'s PG-13 rated documentary "Sicko" (June 29) is produced, directed and written by Michael Moore, who has a big following among moviegoers after "Fahrenheit 9/11's" sleeper success in the summer of 2004 when it grossed $119.2 million domestically. After "Sicko's" high profile premiere at Cannes, it will be a very familiar title to moviegoers who could propel it to sleeper success.

(5) Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and MGM's R rated comedy "Charlie Bartlett" (Aug. 3) is directed by Jon Poll (who edited such films as "Meet the Fockers" and "Scary Movie 3") and stars Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis and Robert Downey Jr. Its storyline about an eccentric teenager who becomes popular as a supplier at school of prescription drugs should appeal to a core audience of young adults and that's often the road to becoming a sleeper.

(6) Paramount and MARV Films' PG-13 rated romantic fantasy adventure "Stardust" (Aug. 10) is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who directed the 2004 crime thriller "Layer Cake" starring Daniel Craig. "Stardust" stars Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Peter O'Toole and Rupert Everett with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. Its story, based on the best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman, is about a young man (Cox) who crosses the wall surrounding his town to enter a forbidden magical realm because he's promised his beloved (Miller) he'll retrieve a star for her that they've just seen fall there. The fallen star, however, turns out to be Claire Danes, which complicates matters. There also are witches, goblins, gnomes, talking animals and evil trees, which could all add up to a winning combination for sleeperdom.

(7) Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's PG-13 sci-fi thriller "Invasion" (Aug. 17) is produced by Joel Silver (who needs no introduction!) and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of "The Downfall," Germany's official entry and a nominee in last year's best foreign film Oscar race. Starring are Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Jeremy Northam. It's a story with all the makings of a sci-fi classic -- a mysterious epidemic that alters the behavior of human beings. Kidman plays a Washington, D.C. psychiatrist who discovers the epidemic's origins are extraterrestrial and must now protect her son, who may hold the key to stopping the escalating invasion. Sight unseen, "Invasion" sounds like it could pack a big boxoffice punch.

(8) Sony's R rated comedy "Superbad" (Aug. 17) is directed by Greg Mottola, whose TV directing credits include several episodes of "Arrested Development." Judd Apatow is one of its producers and Seth Rogen is one of its writers. Starring are Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Seth Rogen. It's a story about two co-dependent high school seniors who want to hook up with girls before going off to college, but first must overcome their separation anxiety. This sounds like the classic sort of summer movie fun for older teens and college kids that can turn into a summer sleeper.

(9) Rogue Pictures, Focus Features' genre division, has a shot at sleeperdom with its sports comedy "Balls of Fury" (Aug. 31). Directed by Robert Ben Garant ("Reno 911!: Miami"), it stars Christopher Walken, George Lopez and Dan Fogler. Its story involves a former ping-pong champ (Fogler) recruited by an FBI agent (Lopez) for a secret mission. With a PG-13 rating that makes it accessible to a broader audience than the summer's R rated youth appeal films, "Fury's" well positioned as summer ends to soak up some good boxoffice rays that could springboard it into Labor Day weekend and the quieter weeks of September where it could catch on nicely.

(10) Fox Searchlight's R rated sci-fi fantasy "Sunshine" (summer undated as of now) is directed by Danny Boyle, director of the hit "28 Days Later," and stars Cillian Murphy ("28 Days Later"), Michelle Yeoh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Chris Evans (Johnny Storm in "Fantastic Four" and the upcoming "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"). This is another great sounding sci-fi tale set 50 years in the future when the sun is dying and so is mankind. A spaceship carrying a crew of eight men and women is the only hope for the future, transporting a device to breathe new life into the sun. After unexpected problems in space, the crew finds itself fighting not only for their lives, but also for their sanity. With the right release date and marketing, "Sunshine" could shine brightly in the summer sleeper skies.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 26, 1989's column: "Along with every summer's blockbusters there's always a sleeper. Last year I was right about it being 'A Fish Called Wanda.' This summer I expect it to be Castle Rock Entertainment's relationship comedy "When Harry Met Sally," directed by Rob Reiner, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, written by Nora Ephron and produced by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman.

"'Sally' was a knockout when I caught it at an early screening last week. It looms as both a critical and boxoffice success for Columbia, which will open it in 17 key markets Wed., July 12 (with L.A. on July 14), expand to 700 to 800 screens July 21 and move up to about 1,200 screens Aug. 4.

"Sleeper success for 'Sally' will be especially meaningful for Castle Rock because it's the first film from the company, whose founder-principals (besides Reiner) include Alan Horn, Martin Shafer, Andrew Scheinman and Glen Padnick.

"Why was 'Sally' slotted in the crowded mid-summer? 'We had long discussions with all the Columbia people about that,' explains Shafer, who heads Castle Rock's movie activities. 'The initial release date for this picture was anywhere from the end of August to where it is now. We jumped around a couple of times before we finalized this date.'

"Castle Rock's inclination was to go later in the summer, but Shafer says 'Sally' was moved up because of the strong enthusiasm it received from Columbia Pictures Entertainment president and CEO Victor Kaufman, CPE chief operating officer Lewis Korman and Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel.

"'It's an alternative movie,' says Shafer. 'It's nice how 'Dead Poets Society' has done so well and has held up so well in the face of very strong competition.' Castle Rock's film, he notes, 'is a very different movie than the sequels and 'Batman.' It's a comedy and it's very funny...'

"Shafter puts 'Sally's' cost at about $16 million and says that, on average, Castle Rock's films will have budgets of about $14 million. It should mark a strong beginning for Castle Rock, which was funded by Coca-Cola in October 1987..."

Update: "When Harry Met Sally" was a huge sleeper hit for Castle Rock and Columbia. It opened wide July 21, 1989 to $8.8 million at 775 theaters ($11,414 per theater) and went on to gross $92.8 million domestically, making it the year's 11th biggest movie. Castle Rock had mixed success after "Sally" and in 1994 was acquired (along with New Line Cinema) by Turner Broadcasting, which became part of Time Warner in 1996. Castle Rock's movies are now distributed through Warner Bros. Its next film, the romantic drama "No Reservations," directed by Scott Hicks and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin, is a co-production with Village Roadshow Pictures opening July 27.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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