Holiday season '08 films should do better


Holiday hits: If you're not thrilled with this year's holiday season films, you'll be happy to know some much better ones are on the way.

There are franchise episodes, remakes of classics and high-profile originals all on the horizon -- but they're not opening until next November and December. At that time, of course, we'll find out if they're holiday hits or just turkeys. But sight unseen and with a full year to go before they surface they sound very promising for the most part. Right now, there's every reason to expect that 2008 should be a stronger holiday season than this one.

As we say goodbye to '07, here's a quick look ahead to what's already showing up for the 2008 holiday season in terms of wide releases with scheduled opening dates. Needless to say, between now and then release dates can and probably will change in some cases and titles that aren't penciled in now may be added. There also will be a year-end stream of limited openings of awards contenders that aren't on the books yet.

November 2008 should get off to a killer start at the boxoffice with Sony's next James Bond action adventure thriller. The franchise's presently untitled 22nd episode will see Daniel Craig return as 007 and Judi Dench back as M. Directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "The Kite Runner"), its screenplay is by Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (co-writers of the 2006 Bond epic "Casino Royale"). Purvis & Wade, by the way, co-wrote the 2002 Bond hit "Die Another Day" and co-wrote with Bruce Feirstein the 1999 Bond hit "The World Is Not Enough."

"Casino Royale" opened Nov. 17, 2006 via Sony to $40.8 million at 3,434 theaters ($11,890 per theater) and went on to gross $167.4 million domestically, making it the biggest Bond ever in the U.S. and Canada and the ninth biggest film of '06. There's every reason to expect the new Bond to outperform the last Bond given that Daniel Wright is now established as Bond, "Casino Royale" was a well-liked hit and ticket prices will be higher in '08 than they were two years earlier.

Not much is known at this point about Bond 22's story, but it's said to be picking up within minutes of where "Casino Royale" left off with Bond confronting the terrorist Mr. White, played by Danish actor Jesper Christensen ("The Interpreter"), whom Bond shot in the leg in the last scene of "Casino Royale." Bond 22's prime villain is reportedly Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE and Bond's nemesis in earlier episodes of the series.

The word is that Blofeld will be played by French actor Mathieu Almaric, who could be Oscar nominated for his current performance in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" as the paralyzed Jean-Dominique Bauby. Don't expect to see favorite Bond series supporting players like Miss Moneypenny or Q in Bond 22 as they reportedly aren't in its storyline. In any event, having a Bond film to kick off the 2008 pre-Thanksgiving period is something to look forward to and it should get things off to a great start at the boxoffice.

Bond 22 will face competition Nov. 7 from only one new wide opening, DreamWorks and Paramount's animated sequel "Madagascar: The Crate Escape." Co-directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (co-directors of the 2005 original "Madagascar"), it features returning voice talents Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Andy Richter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer.

The first "Madagascar" opened May 27, 2005 to $47.2 million at 4,131 theaters ($11,431 per theater) and wound up grossing $193.6 million domestically, making it '05's ninth biggest film. Its storyline revolved around a pack of animals who escaped from the New York Zoo and wound up on the island of Madagascar. In the sequel, they turn up in the wild in Africa, which they're not very well-prepared for after spending all those years in the posh New York Zoo.

Between Bond's appeal to adults and "Madagascar's" strength with family audiences, the first weekend of next November should see some sizzling boxoffice action.

Both films will certainly continue to do big business in the second weekend of November where at this point their only new competition appears to be New Line's release of the romantic comedy "Four Christmases," directed by Seth Gordon ("The King of Kong") and written by Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson (their first produced screenplay). Starring are Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw and Dwight Yoakam.

The film's storyline revolves around a young couple whose two sets of parents have each divorced and remarried, which means there are four households they need to visit on Christmas Day. "Four Christmases" will clearly need to be driven by spectacular word of mouth, fabulous marketing and favorable reviews if it's going to survive against Bond 22 and "Madagascar 2."

Nov. 21 will see a return to powerhouse product with Warner Bros.' opening of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Directed by David Yates ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"), its screenplay is by Steve Kloves ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"). "Prince" is the sixth episode in the blockbuster franchise Warner has created from J.K. Rowling's best-sellers since 2001. Returning, of course, are stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.

Four films in the series (including "Prince") have had November openings and two have had summer launches. Last July 11 saw the arrival of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" to $77.1 million at 4,285 theaters ($17,994 per theater). It ended up grossing $292 million domestically, making it the year's fifth top film. "Phoenix" is the second biggest episode in the franchise, following the original, "Stone," which opened Nov. 16, 2001 and wound up doing $317.6 million domestically.

"Prince" looms as a safe bet to do huge pre-Thanksgiving business and to carve itself a thick slice of Thanksgiving Weekend ticket sales the following week. It will, of course, face competition from some new wide releases hoping to soak up plenty of Turkey Day boxoffice gravy. There is, for instance, Disney's animated feature "Bolt," directed by Chris Williams (directorial debut), opening Nov. 26, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

"Bolt's" voice talents include John Travolta, Thomas Haden Church, Mario Cantone, Bruce Greenwood, Liv Hutchings, Woody Harrelson, Bernie Mac and Jennessa Rose. Its story revolves around Bolt, a German shepherd who stars in a TV series and thinks he has superpowers. After Bolt's unexpectedly abandoned in the Nevada desert and encounters some strange real world animals, he comes to realize he doesn't really have superpowers after all.

Also arriving in theaters Nov. 26 is Paramount's fantasy romantic comedy drama "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," directed by David Fincher ("Zodiac," "Fight Club," "Se7en"). The film is a co-production with Warner Bros., which is releasing it internationally. "Button's" screenplay by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump," "The Insider," "Munich") is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who ages backwards. At age 50 he falls in love with a woman of 30, but the problem is they're aging in opposite directions. Starring are Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton and Julia Ormond.

Here, too, the weekend is nicely balanced between one new release that will be the choice of family audiences and another that's targeted to adults.

There's nothing scheduled yet to open Dec. 5, but that's bound to change. Dec. 12 is when 20th Century Fox will launch its remake of the classic 1951 sci-fi fantasy "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which was directed by Robert Wise and starred Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe. The remake is directed by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and written by David Scarpa ("The Last Castle"). Starring are Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm (cable TV's "Mad Men").

In "Day" an alien, Klaatu, and his giant robot, Gort, land on Earth where Klaatu warns all humans that they must now live in peace or they will be destroyed.

Sci-fi typically plays to an adult male audience, which makes "Day" the perfect film to open the same weekend as Sony's romantic drama "Seven Pounds," directed by Gabriele Muccino ("The Pursuit of Happyness") and written by Grant Nieporte (TV's "8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter"). Starring are Will Smith, Rosario Dawson and Woody Harrelson.

"Pounds" is the story of a man planning to commit suicide who accidentally falls in love while preparing to kill himself. Given Will Smith's record setting success with "I Am Legend," which opened Dec. 14 via Warner Bros. to $77.2 million and is the biggest December opening ever, I wouldn't worry too much about whether moviegoers will want to see a movie about a would-be suicide. They'll be happy to see Will Smith in just about anything so it's a safe bet that "Pounds" will open big.

Next Dec. 19 is already overcrowded with wide openings. There's Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's comedy "Yes Man," directed by Peyton Reed ("The Break-Up") and starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel. It's the story of man stuck in a low-level bank job who signs up for a self-help program that requires him to say yes to everything.

Universal's animated family feature "The Tale of Despereaux" also is set for Dec. 19. Directed by Mike Johnson ("Tim Burton's Corpse Bride"), Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), Sam Fell ("Flushed Away") and Rob Stevenhagen (directorial debut), its voice talents include Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Stanley Tucci, Sigourney Weaver, Robbie Coltrane, Ciaran Hinds, Christopher Lloyd, William H. Macy, Tracey Ullman, Tony Hale and Emma Watson.

"Despereaux's" story revolves around a mouse with big dreams who falls in love with a princess and winds up in great danger.

Also on deck for Dec. 19 is Fox's comedy drama "Marley & Me," directed by David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") and written by Scott Frank ("The Interpreter"). Starring are Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.

"Marley" is the name of an adorable but neurotic Labrador puppy who teaches some important life lessons to the couple who adopt him.

Last but not least for next Dec. 19 is DreamWorks and Paramount's drama "Revolutionary Road," directed by Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and written by Justin Haythe based on the novel by Richard Yates. Starring are Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates.

With Mendes having won the Oscar for directing the best picture winning "American Beauty" and with Di Caprio and Winslet having previously worked, shall we say, very well together -- it's been 10 years since they sailed into theaters with "Titanic" -- you have to figure that "Road" will do big business. The film's story, which involves a 1950s couple that move from suburban Connecticut to France, doesn't really matter as much as the picture's star power.

Three more titles are scheduled to arrive Dec. 25 and all three look like they could make it a merry Christmas for different audience quadrants. Disney's family fantasy comedy "Bedtime Stories" is directed by Adam Shankman ("Hairspray," "Cheaper by the Dozen") and written by Matt Lopez ("The Wild"). Starring are Adam Sandler and Keri Russell.

In "Bedtime" Sandler plays a busy real estate developer who tells elaborate bedtime stories to his niece and nephew. His life is turned upside down when those tales suddenly begin to come true. Given Sandler's track record -- his films have grossed about $1.5 billion domestically -- this sounds like a pretty safe bet to play to full houses.

Paramount's "Star Trek 11" is also blasting off Christmas Day. Directed by J.J. Abrams ("Mission: Impossible III"), its screenplay is by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (co-screenwriters of "Transformers"). Starring are Leonard Nimoy, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Karl Urban, Chris Pine, Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Clifton Collins Jr. and Ben Cross.

The "Star Trek" franchise has grossed about $756 million domestically since its first episode landed in theaters in December 1979. After 10 theatrical films, the franchise has a built-in cult following that's grown up watching it on the big screen. It also has an audience base that's grown over the years thanks to numerous television spin-offs. They're likely to regard "Star Trek 11" as a great Christmas present. Its storyline revolves around the early days when the young James T. Kirk (Pine) and the young Mr. Spock (Quinto) first meet at Starfleet Academy and then take their first mission into outer space. Fans looking for William Shatner in the new film won't be happy not to find him, but they will, at least, get to see Nimoy again as the older Spock.

MGM and Lakeshore Entertainment's musical drama "Fame," also premiering next Dec. 25, is directed by Andy Fickman ("The Game Plan") and written by Allison Burnett ("Feast of Love," "Resurrecting the Champ"). It's an updated remake of the 1980 MGM hit directed by Alan Parker about a group of students at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts.

With families heading to "Bedtime" and the adult audience of Trekkies hurrying to "Star Trek 11," "Fame" will be the new film in the marketplace targeted to all those under-25 core moviegoers.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 28, 1990's column: "Those who believe in poetic justice can be forgiven for smiling these days as a new $3 million benchmark price for screenplay sales is being established just as Hollywood is making sure everyone understands that its definition of net profits is that there won't be any.

"Clearly, there is a relationship between rapidly escalating creative costs and what the media typically refers to by the misnomer creative accounting. By front-loading the cost of production, filmmakers are less at risk in terms of seeing money at the back end. They'll still try to negotiate the best possible net profits deals, but they'll certainly sleep much better knowing they've gotten more money than ever before upfront.

There also is a relationship between stratospheric upfront costs for literary material -- whether it's a novel to be adapted to the screen or an original screenplay -- and the Hollywood homerun mentality that's so evident this summer. There seems no question now that the kind of films the industry wants to make are those with homerun potential at the boxoffice. By definition, these are megabudget films because they contain expensive creative elements and often involve costly special visual effects...

"When a project starts out with a screenplay that costs $3 million, it's not going to wind up getting made as a low-budget movie. Projects with big start-up costs inevitably become megabudget pictures supported by megabudget marketing.

"The trend toward buying spec scripts from superstar writers at megadollar prices strongly suggests that there are major changes ahead for Hollywood's present system of developing screenplays. Just as the industry believes there is less risk attached to making costly films with superstar elements, it considers it less risky to pay a lot of money for a screenplay it can read right now than less money for an idea or a treatment that needs to be developed into a screenplay ...

"Buying a spec script at a high price from a high-profile writer, on the other hand, is far safer (than developing one). For years Hollywood has believed that the best writing is the most expensive writing ... Therefore, if you commit a lot of money for a screenplay, you can take some comfort in being able to say you got started by spending to get the best. It's harder to be blamed for failing if you've played it safe by spending big from the very start."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel