Originals, not sequels, will drive holiday season


Original outlook: Franchise episodes are driving Hollywood's summer, but that won't be the case this holiday season when original product will dominate the megaplexes.

Looking at what's ahead in terms of wide releases this November and December there's very little in the way of sequels on deck. Indeed, moviegoers who are already longing for fresh and original product as they get ready for this summer's onslaught of sequels should really be delighted with this year's holiday mix.

With insiders projecting a $4 billion summer and a $10 billion year, Hollywood's grosses for September through December are going to have to add up to around $3 billion. Roughly speaking, about $2.8 billion worth of tickets were sold domestically prior to last weekend's start of the presummer season. If summer hits the $4 billion mark, that would put the year in the $6.8 billion to $7 billion range when fall begins. The heavyweight titles that can deliver the kind of big grosses it will take to make 2007 a $10 billion year are typically going to open in the November and December period that Hollywood defines as the "holiday season."

With mostly new original product set for holiday season release this year, studio marketers will face big challenges because they need to create early awareness of these films. That's something they didn't have to focus on in marketing this summer's sequels because everyone knows brand names like "Spider-Man," "Shrek," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Ocean's Thirteen," "Fantastic Four," "Harry Potter," Pixar ("Ratatouille"), "The Simpsons," "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Rush Hour." When it comes to this holiday season's originals, Hollywood will need to get word out early so people know what these films are and so that a buzz can begin to build about them.

Just as Hollywood now launches the presummer the first weekend in May instead of waiting until Memorial Day weekend, the holiday season now begins the first weekend in November rather than at Thanksgiving as was the case only a few years ago. Hollywood's thinking, of course, is why wait for the actual holidays when you can extend the movie seasons of the year by adding three more lucrative weeks of playing time?

Here's a quick look at what to expect based on current distribution schedules. Bear in mind, of course, that release dates are always subject to change and that if one film moves that can spark multiple changes as studios try to avoid going head to head with films that are targeted to the same audience. Producing and writing credits are not always final this far in advance of opening dates so these, too, could change in the months ahead.

Nov. 2 will see the arrival of two originals with appeal to very different core audiences. Universal and Imagine Entertainment's R rated drama "American Gangster" is clearly for adults, especially males. Directed by Ridley Scott ("Gladiator"), it's produced by Brian Grazer ("The Da Vinci Code") and Scott, written by Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") and stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

In "Gangster" Washington plays drug kingpin Frank Lucas who smuggles heroin into Harlem in the 1970s by hiding it inside coffins of soldiers who have been killed in combat in Vietnam. Crowe plays Detective Richie Roberts who brings Lucas to justice, after which -- possible spoiler, so read on only if you don't care -- he turns informant and the two of them team up to expose the crooked cops and others who make drug trafficking possible.

DreamWorks and Paramount's computer animated family film "Bee Movie" is directed by Stephen Hickner ("The Prince of Egypt") and Simon J. Smith ("Shrek 3-D"). Jerry Seinfeld, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, is one of its voice talents with Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman and many others.

"Bee" is the story of Barry B. Benson, a fresh out of college bee who's unhappy with having only one potential career -- making honey. Barry, voiced by Seinfeld, meets Vanessa, a New York florist voiced by Zellweger, who saves his life, after which he gets the idea of suing the human race for stealing bees' honey.

Nov. 9 will bring another perfect co-existing combination of a comedy and a serious drama, both of which are originals. The comedy is Warner Bros.' "Fred Claus," directed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers"), produced by Joel Silver ("The Matrix" franchise and about 80 other titles), Dobkin and Jessie Nelson ("Because I Said So") and stars Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti and Miranda Richardson.

"Claus" is the story of Fred Claus, played by Giamatti, who's lived his life in the large shadow of his little brother, Nicholas, played by Vaughn. While Nicholas has grown up perfectly -- just like a Saint, in fact -- Fred's his polar opposite -- a repo man who steals what he repossesses. When Fred winds up in jail, Nicholas bails him out, but makes him agree to come to the North Pole and work off his debt making toys. Fred's not very good elf material, however, and Christmas is suddenly in danger of being stolen by Fred.

The drama set to open against "Claus" is "Lions for Lambs" from the new United Artists, released via MGM, directed by Robert Redford, who stars in it opposite Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, all of whom are brand names for marketing purposes.

"Lambs" is the story of interconnected lives that converge -- a congressman played by Cruise and a journalist played by Streep, who are debating the war at the time in Afghanistan, and an idealistic college professor, played by Redford, who tries to convince a good student not to give up his studies. As an example, Redford's professor points to two of his former students who enlisted in the Army and are now under fire in Afghanistan.

The competition really starts heating up in mid-November when five wide releases go into theaters. Not surprisingly, there will be something for everyone opening Nov. 16 and they're all originals.

Paramount and Warner Bros.' fantasy adventure "Beowulf," which Paramount is releasing domestically and WB has internationally, is directed by Robert Zemeckis ("The Polar Express") and stars Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Brendan Gleeson. It's set in the sixth century with the warrior Beowulf battling a monster named Grendel.

MGM's drama "Elegy" is directed by Isabel Coixet ("Paris, je t'aime") and stars Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper and Deborah Harry. Its screenplay by Nicholas Meyer ("Sommersby") is based on the novel by Philip Roth about a cultural critic, played by Kingsley, who's life is thrown into disarray after an encounter with a student, played by Cruz.

Lionsgate's animated family comedy "Foodfight" is directed by Lawrence Kasanoff ("Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour") and features such voice talents as Charlie Sheen and Eva Longoria. It's a story about the chaos that goes on after-hours between different produce on supermarket shelves.

New Line's period piece romantic drama "Love in the Time of Cholera" is directed by Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"), written by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and stars Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Catalina Sandino Moreno. It's a love triangle story set in turn of the century South America.

20th Century Fox's family fantasy adventure "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is from first-time feature helmer Zach Helm and stars Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman. Hoffman plays the 243-year-old owner of a magical toy store, who bequeaths it to its manager, played by Portman, after which some dark changes begin to occur in the store.

Nov. 21, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, will see the arrival of four other wide releases, all of which are originals. Disney's live action and animated fantasy family film "Enchanted" is directed by Kevin Lima ("102 Dalmatians") and stars Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel, Rachel Covey and Susan Sarandon. It's the story of an animated peasant girl who falls in love with a prince and is then banished from the animated kingdom by an evil queen, after which she turns up in the real world of New York City and finds love.

Warner Bros.' comedy "Mama's Boy" is directed by Tim Hamilton ("Truth in Advertising") and stars Jon Heder, Diane Keaton, Jeff Daniels, Anna Faris, Sara Chjalke and Dorian Missick. Its story revolves around a 29 year old still living at home (Heder), whose great arrangement is threatened when his mom (Keaton) falls for a motivational speaker (Daniels).

Dimension Films' "The Mist," released through MGM, is a horror genre film based on a Stephen King novel. Written and directed by Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption"), it stars Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden and Andre Braugher. It's the story of what happens in a small Maine town after a violent storm is followed by a cloud of mist that envelops the area and allows horrific creatures to arrive through an interdimensional portal.

Screen Gems urban appeal drama "This Christmas," released through Sony, is written and directed by Preston A. Whitmore II ("Crossover") and stars Regina King, Loretta Devine and Delroy Lindo. It's a drama set at Christmas about a family's first holiday together in four years.

Dec. 7 will put two other well-matched originals in theaters. New Line's "His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass" is a sci-fi fantasy directed by Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") and is based on a novel by Philip Pullman. Starring are Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards and Eva Green. It's the story of an orphan living in a parallel universe who travels to the far North to save her best friend and other children from being experimented upon by a mysterious organization that has kidnapped them.

Universal's romantic comedy "Leatherheads" is directed by George Clooney ("Good Night, and Good Luck") and stars Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce. It's set in the roughneck world of 1920s professional football with Clooney playing a team owner who drafts a college football sensation (Krasinski) and then sees him fall for the owner's fiancee (Zellweger).

Fox's live action and animated family film "Alvin and the Chipmunks" is directed by Tim Hill ("Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties") and stars Jason Lee, Cameron Richardson, Jane Lynch and David Cross. The film centers around the three singing chipmunk brothers (Alvin, Simon and Theodore) and is based on the 1950s cartoon series about them.

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures' fantasy action adventure "I Am Legend" is directed by Francis Lawrence ("Constantine") and stars Will Smith, Alice Braga and Salli Richardson. Its screenplay by Akiva Goldsman ("The Da Vinci Code") and Mark Protosevich ("Poseidon") is based on the novel by Richard Matheson. Its story revolves around Robert Nevile (Smith) the last man alive in what is left of New York City, who is surrounded by infected victims of the plague who have mutated into carnivorous beings who will devour anything in their path.

Lionsgate's biographical drama "Thomas Kinkade's The Christmas Cottage" is directed by Michael Campus ("The Passover Plot") and stars Peter O'Toole, Marcia Gay Harden and Jared Padalecki. It's the story of how Kinkade was motivated to become an artist when his mother was in danger of losing the family's home.

Dec. 21, the Friday before Christmas, will see the arrival of three wide releases open, two of which are originals. Disney's action adventure "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," is one of only two wide release sequels opening this holiday season. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Jon Turteltaub, who produced the 2004 original that grossed $173 million domestically (and over $174 million internationally), it is directed by Turteltaub, who directed the first film. Starring again are Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel with new additions Helen Mirren, Ed Harris and Bruce Greenwood. This time around Cage as treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates is looking to discover the truth behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by finding out what was in the 18 pages missing from assassin John Wilkes Booth's diary.

Warner Bros.' romantic drama "P.S. I Love You" is directed by Richard LaGravenese ("Freedom Writers") and stars Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow. Its producers include Wendy Finerman (an Oscar winner for "Forrest Gump"), Andrew Kosove, Broderick Johnson and Molly Smith. Swank plays a young widow whose husband (Butler) has left her 10 messages intended to help ease her pain and start a new life.

Christmas Day will see two originals and one sequel arrive in theaters. Fox's "AVP: Alien vs. Predator 2" is directed by Colin and Greg Strause ("16mm Mystery") and stars Reiko Aylesworth, Steven Pasquale and Shareeka Epps. It's the story of warring aliens and predators who descend on a small town.

Universal's biographical drama "Charlie Wilson's War" is directed by Mike Nichols ("Closer") and written by Aaron Sorkin (some 85 episodes of "The West Wing") based on the book by George Crile. It is produced by Gary Goetzman ("The Polar Express") and Tom Hanks. Starring are Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. "War" is based on the true story of how Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson got the CIA to train and arm rebels in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union and what unforeseen consequences that war brought about.

Sony and Revolution Studios' family fantasy adventure "Water Horse: The Legend of the Deep" is directed by Jay Russell ("Tuck Everlasting") and stars Alex Etel, Emily Watson, Priyanka Xi and Ben Chaplin. Its story revolves around two children in Scotland who find an egg on a beach that hatches into a water horse that later turns into the Loch Ness monster.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 8, 1989's column: "Paramount's 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' got an enthusiastic reception with applause and appropriate laughter at its Tuesday media screening at Mann's Village Theatre in Westwood. The film's warm welcome was in sharp contrast to what local gossips have been predicting for months based on one early research screening of a work-in-progress print of the film.

"At the screening of 'Trek,' which was directed by William Shatner, produced by Harve Bennett and executive produced by Ralph Winter, insiders took special notice of one scene involving the distinguished Starfleet chief of staff. That role is played by Bennett, who joined the 'Trek' family in 1980 as executive producer of 'Trek II' and has served as producer/writer of the series' subsequent films.

"Bennett, who was my guest recently on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series, notes, 'It was the first scene we filmed. It's the first feature picture Bill Shatner has directed and I'm saying, 'This is wonderful. I'll do that. That's a simple part to do.' But it was not simple because it was done in a heavy complex of beam-splitting images and I had to be perfectly rigid. It took five hours.'

"How did Bennett ... become involved with 'Star Trek?' 'The irony is that the reason I'm doing 'Star Trek' goes back to the fact that I had just gone to Paramount,' he replies. 'I was courting a lady and we were in that indefinite period of decision. She was a Trekkie. I mean, she would sit at the set and mouth every line of every episode. I was called into (then Gulf + Western chairman) Charlie Bluhdorn's office, whom I had never met, with my friend Barry Diller and my friend Michael Eisner (who were running Paramount at the time). Charlie Bluhdorn said, 'What did you think of 'Star Trek I?' I froze for a minute and said, 'Well, I thought it was boring.' He said, 'Can you make a better movie than that?'

"'I said, 'Yes, I think I could.' He said, 'Fine.' That's the way Charlie Bluhdorn did things. The first person I called was my dear, dear lady. I said, 'Guess what I'm going to do?' Not specifically because of that, but we (Harve and literary agent Carole Bennett) have now been together for nine years and we have a couple of kids and we've been happily ever after...'"

Update: "Star Trek V" was not one of the series' most successful episodes. It opened June 9, 1989 to $17.4 million at 2,202 theaters ($7,890 per theater) and went on to gross $52.2 million domestically, ranking 25th in terms of the year's top grossing films. Of the 10 episodes in the "Star Trek" franchise it ranks ninth. It was Bennett's fourth "Star Trek" film and the last one in the series that he produced.

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