November potential good with 'Casino'


November numbers: After a strong October with ticket sales up from last year for four consecutive weekends, Hollywood's heading into what looks like could be a strong November.

Although the first half of the month doesn't look wildly exciting, several potentially big films are on tap in mid-November -- including Sony's James Bond epic "Casino Royale" and Warner Bros.' computer animated "Happy Feet." Looking back at last November's numbers, the first half of the month wasn't very robust either. So if this November's mid-month product can out-perform last year's, that should put the month in the plus column for Hollywood.

Last November's first weekend (Nov. 4-6) saw first place on the chart go to Disney's launch of its non-Pixar animated feature "Chicken Little" with $40.1 million. The number two film was Universal's opening of its R-rated Gulf War drama "Jarhead" to $27.7 million. The rest of the top five films were holdovers in their second weekends: Lionsgate's "Saw II" was third with $16.7 million (down 47%); Sony's "The Legend of Zorro" was fourth with $10 million (down 39%); and Universal's "Prime" was fifth with $5.1 million (down 17%).

Overall, there wasn't a lot of boxoffice strength as November '05 got under way. Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- took in $128.7 million, which was down 8% from the comparable weekend a year earlier.

This time around the first weekend in November will bring two family appeal comedies with high hopes. In Disney's G-rated sequel "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," directed by Michael Lembeck and starring Tim Allen and Martin Short, Santa fights to keep Jack Frost from taking over Christmas. Paramount and DreamWorks' "Flushed Away" is a PG-rated animated feature from England's Aardman animation studio about a posh rat who accidentally winds up in London's sewers and has to adapt to a completely different lifestyle.

Although family appeal product has the ability to generate big numbers, there are no guarantees these days that it will now that there's so much of it in the marketplace all the time. It's becoming a question of how many family films families will be willing or able to spend money on. "The Santa Clause 2" opened Nov. 1, 2002 to only $29 million, so the latest episode will have to perform a lot better than that to make an impact. Aardman's last animated feature, "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit," arrived to a very disappointing $16 million Oct. 7, 2005 and Wall Street analysts have been very negative about "Flushed's" prospects. The weekend's only other wide opening is 20th Century Fox's R-rated comedy "Borat," starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Pamela Anderson, whose release was recently scaled back because its tracking numbers didn't look promising.

The second weekend last November (Nov. 11-13) was even worse than the first. Although "Chicken Little" held onto first place nicely, falling only 21% with $31.7 million, Sony's launch of its PG-rated fantasy adventure "Zathura" fizzled in second place with $13.4 million and The Weinstein Company's much hyped R-rated thriller "Derailed" starring Jennifer Aniston was a weak third with $12.2 million. Paramount's R-rated crime drama "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" was an fourth with an okay $12 million (at just 1,652 theaters) and "Jarhead" fell to fifth place with $11.7 million, a 58% decline in its second weekend.

All told, key films grossed $121.3 million for the weekend, down 13% from one year earlier.

This year's second weekend of November has a lot more going for it and looks like it should outperform last year. To begin with, there's Fox's "A Good Year," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. The PG-13-rated romantic drama about a London investment banker who inherits a vineyard in Provence is clearly a change of pace for Crowe, who's known for tackling serious dramatic roles like those in "A Beautiful Mind" and "Cinderella Man." And it's also something quite different for Scott, who's best known for big action epics like "Gladiator" or "Kingdom of Heaven." If "Good" does good business it will make a big difference in terms of how November's second weekend turns out.

At the same time, there's the suspense thriller "The Return" from Focus Features' Rogue Films label, which has some good star power of its own in Sarah Michelle Gellar. Its PG-13 rating should make it accessible to a wider audience of under-17 teens who love the genre but can't buy tickets to R-rated horror films like "Saw III." There's also Sony's PG-13-rated comedy thriller "Stranger Than Fiction," starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah, which looks like it could scare up some good ticket sales, as well. And there's Paramount Vantage's wide break of its critically acclaimed awards contender drama "Babel," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Last weekend "Babel" flexed its platform release muscles, opening at 7 theaters to a huge $389,351 ($55,622 per theater). It's got some formidable star power of its own in Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

The boxoffice finally came to life last November in the third weekend of the month thanks to Warner Bros.' opening of its franchise episode "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which did $102.3 million. Fox's launch of its Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" was a distant second with $22.3 million. "Chicken Little" found the boxoffice sky falling in its third weekend, finishing third with $14.7 million, a drop of 54%. "Derailed" was definitely off the track in its second weekend, placing fourth with $6.5 million, down 47%. And "Zathura" finished a weak fifth with $5.1 million, down 62%.

Thanks to "Harry Potter," key films hit $176.1 million in last November's pre-Thanksgiving weekend, up a solid 19% from the previous year.

This time around weekend three shows considerable potential thanks to Sony's "Casino Royale," the PG-13-rated 22nd episode in the venerable James Bond franchise, and Warner Bros.' computer animated PG-rated "Happy Feet." Targeted to entirely different core audiences, these have the potential if all goes well to outperform last year's combination of a very strong "Harry Potter" and a much smaller "Walk the Line."

Of course, there never are any guarantees in Hollywood that all will go well. In the case of "Casino," directed by Martin Campbell, there's a change of actors playing 007 with Daniel Craig taking over for Pierce Brosnan. In the past, introducing a new Bond has resulted in a temporary downturn in ticket sales, but who knows if that will be the case now. The last Bond episode, "Die Another Day," opened Nov. 22, 2002 to $47.1 million.

As for "Happy Feet," directed by George Miller and featuring such voice talents as Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, its tale about Emperor Penguins sounds like a winner, particularly after Warner Independent Pictures' success last year with the documentary "March of the Penguins," which grossed $77.4 million domestically. As much as big computer animated product fits into the concept of holiday moviegoing, because there's so much more of it in the marketplace throughout the year it now runs the risk of not being perceived as special as it once was.

Of course, audiences may decide they're happier with a tough and gritty Bond and they may fall in love with those singing and tap dancing animated penguins. If so, the pre-Thanksgiving week will be huge and that will set the stage for an expansion of audience for the five day holiday period.

Last November Hollywood had much to be thankful for as the month's fourth weekend, the five day Thanksgiving holiday, saw key films gross $231.1 million, a 5% increase from the prior year. "Harry Potter" led the pack with $81.3 million in its second weekend, bringing its cume to $201 million. "Line" was walking in second place with $26.9 million. Paramount's opening of its family comedy "Yours, Mine and Ours" was third with $24.3 million. Sony's kick-off of the musical "Rent" was a soft fourth with $17.1 million. And "Chicken Little" was fifth in its fourth weekend with $16.9 million.

This Thanksgiving weekend should see strong holdover action from "Casino" and "Happy." There also will be wide openings Wed., Nov. 22 for Disney's suspense thriller "Deja Vu," which has star power in front of and behind the cameras with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott and stars Denzel Washington and Val Kilmer; and Warner Bros.' R-rated time travel sci-fi fantasy "The Fountain," directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.

MGM will go wide on Thanksgiving Day with The Weinstein Company's R-rated awards contender "Bobby," directed by Emilio Estevez and with an extensive ensemble cast that includes such stars as Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Martin Sheen, Christian Slater and Sharon Stone.

If the pre-Thanksgiving weekend sees "Casino" and "Happy" off to happy starts, Hollywood should enjoy a bountiful Thanksgiving that will tip the scales not only for those of us who overindulge at the table but also for November's boxoffice. If, perish the thought, pre-Thanksgiving leaves something to be desired, Hollywood's goose will be cooked before the five day holiday begins.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 6, 1988's column: "Youth appeal comedies, a popular Hollywood genre not long ago, have all but vanished lately, a fact that could work to the advantage of John Davis, Andy Licht and Jeff Mueller, whose 'License to Drive' arrives from 20th Century Fox Wednesday, July 6.

"Actually, 'License,' which was directed by first-time feature director Greg Beeman, marks something of an evolution of the youth comedy genre. 'This isn't youth comedy. This is youth action-adventure comedy, which is a new genre in and of itself,' John Davis, executive producer of 'License,' told me over lunch Thursday at Hillcrest...

"'License' was brought in for $8.5 million, according to Davis: 'The action sequences in this movie are pretty thrilling. We had a top stunt action coordinator. A picture that's got this kind of action in it and has got recognizable talent in it in Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Richard Masur and Carol Kane, doing that picture for $8.5 million was a terrific use of what money we had...

"Although 'License' is the first project to reach the screen from Davis Entertainment Co. and Licht/Mueller Film Corp., it actually was the second project that the two companies got involved with together. They are producing the first, 'Little Monsters,' later this year for Vestron...In addition, Davis has some 40 projects in development with various studios, including Universal, Orion, Columbia, Lorimar and Paramount..."

Update: "License to Drive" opened July 8, 1988 to $3.9 million at 1,223 theaters ($3,148 per theater) and went on to gross $22.4 million domestically. John Davis, of course, went on to become a leading producer of such hits as "Grumpy Old Men," "Courage Under Fire," "Doctor Dolittle," "Dr. Dolittle 2," "I, Robot" and many others. His next production, the action adventure fantasy "Eragon," opens via 20th Century Fox Dec. 15.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel