September Smackdown!: Inside the Box-Office Battles

A crowded calendar and similar movies could force big stars to fight for audiences.

The devastation at the box office during the final weeks of August had little to do with Hurricane Irene. Hollywood studios released too many films with overlapping audiences. Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, Colombiana, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark -- how many pictures can young moviegoers be expected to see? It could get even worse in September. Late summer is always a breeding ground for smaller films, particularly genre fare (action, thriller, horror), but this year's calendar is alarmingly crowded.

► SEPT. 9-11: Contagion vs. Warrior

The Battle: Warner Bros.' Steven Soderbergh thriller, with a large cast led by Matt Damon, Jude Law and Kate Winslet, squares off against Lionsgate's mixed martial arts actioner directed by Gavin O'Connor. The latter is drawing strong buzz, particularly for Nick Nolte's performance. But the pic, also starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, is having difficulty generating early interest and is losing males to Contagion, according to tracking. This might be what prompted Lionsgate to hold sneak previews of the movie Sept. 4.

Likely Winner: Contagion

SEPT. 16-18: Drive vs. Straw Dogs

The Battle: Two R-rated thrillers are gunning for moviegoers: FilmDistrict's buzzy Ryan Gosling vehicle and Sony's Rod Lurie-directed remake of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 classic, starring James Marsden. "They are in danger of splitting the audience smack down the middle," says a rival studio executive. The Weinstein Co.'s Sarah Jessica Parker comedy I Don't Know How She Does It (the clear choice for females) and Disney's rerelease of The Lion King in 3D complete the field.

Likely Winner: I Don't Know How She Does It

SEPT. 23-25: Moneyball vs. Abduction

The Battle: It's a heartthrob showdown as Sony's Brad Pitt starrer opens opposite Taylor Lautner's first non-Twilight vehicle. Lautner will lure younger females, and the action in the film should appeal to young males, but it could lose men to Moneyball, a baseball dramedy about Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland Athletics. The Pitt film likely will play older, and it could overlap with Killer Elite, an action drama starring Robert De Niro, Jason Statham and Clive Owen, which also bows that weekend from new distributor Open Road Films. The field will be even more crowded with the 3D Dolphin Tale, which Warner Bros. hopes will lure families. "Nobody checks in with anybody else to see when all these movies are going to be finished," gripes one studio executive. "So all of a sudden, there is a glut."

Likely Winner: Too close to call