Fall movies: James Bond and not much else
After a hot summer for the silver screen, some worry that there are few big movies on tap for the fall and holidays.
By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The summer is almost over. And for Hollywood, it's been a welcome change from a year ago.

Mutants, race car drivers (both computer animated and, in the case of Will Ferrell's Ricky Bobby, just plain animated) and pirates have helped the movie biz bounce back from a dismal 2005.

The latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, starring Johnny Depp, has grossed more than $400 million and helped lead a summer revival at the box office. But are there enough good films on tap for the fall to keep people coming back to the theaters?
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So far, attendance is up 3.7 percent from the same period a year ago and ticket sales are up 7 percent, according to figures from Exhibitor Relations Co, a box office tracking firm.

But it may be premature to pop out champagne corks and sing "Happy Days Are Here Again." Compared to the same period in 2004, box office revenue is down 1.7 percent and attendance at theaters is off 7.7 percent.

What's more, analysts say this fall is shaping up to be lackluster compared to more recent years. So it's not a given that Hollywood will finish with higher ticket sales and attendance than last year.

"One of the important things that the movie industry will have to deal with this year is that the fourth quarter is looking to be weaker than last year," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, a movie industry research firm.

Last fall, Hollywood's slump was lessened a bit by the release of three of the year's five biggest grossing movies around the holidays: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "King Kong." And six of the top 15 movies in 2004 hit theaters in November or December.

"The holidays are just about as important as summer. But I'm looking for the obvious blockbuster, the 'King Kong', the 'Harry Potter' or 'Narnia,' and they don't pop out at you this year," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co.

Bond and Balboa are back!

The movie that many expect to be among the bigger hits, "Casino Royale," has some notable risks. This latest in the James Bond franchise features a new actor as Bond, the relatively unknown Daniel Craig.

Craig has some big shoes to fill. Pierce Brosnan, who played 007 in the previous four Bond movies, was the most commercially successful Bond of all time. But Dergarabedian thinks "Casino Royale," which is being released by Sony (Charts) just before Thanksgiving, will be a hit.

But Pandya said that in addition to some resistance to a new face as Bond, "Casino Royale" could suffer from the fact that it's not a big special-effects laden flick.

"Action films not driven by special effects have struggled during past two years so it will be interesting to see how strong the movie does when it opens," he said.

Bond isn't the only legendary film character making a return to theaters. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky is coming back after a 16-year absence in "Rocky Balboa." The movie is being released by MGM, which is owned by a consortium that includes Sony, cable company Comcast (Charts) and several private equity firms, in December.

Even though it's been a while since Rocky last appeared in the ring, Pandya thinks the movie should do well...especially with older audiences who grew up watching the Rocky films from the 70s and 80s over and over again.

"Given how old this franchise is, I don't think the producers would have gone through with a new Rocky film unless they had a good idea so you have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt," he said, adding that inspirational sports films are often big hits.

To that end, Walt Disney's (Charts) "Invincible," based on the true story of a bartender who tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles football team and made it, debuted last weekend as the No. 1 movie.

Oscar contenders and horror films dominate

The fall movie season isn't just about big-budget hits. It's also the time for studios to release their best films in the hopes of scoring Academy Award nominations.

And Oscar buzz tends to help at the box office. That was definitely the case for "Brokeback Mountain" and "Walk the Line" last year. This fall, Dergarabedian said some possible Oscar contenders that could see a bump at theaters are "The Black Dahlia," "Flags of our Fathers," "The Departed," and "Marie Antoinette."

"The Black Dahlia" stars Oscar winner Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson. "Flags" re-teams director Clint Eastwood and writer Paul Haggis, who worked together on "Million Dollar Baby." "The Departed" is the latest movie by legendary director Martin Scorsese and "Marie Antoinette," starring Kirsten Dunst, was directed by Sofia Coppola.

"There are a bunch of really good films that seem to have a lot to offer in terms of casting and directing pedigrees," Dergarabedian said. "Dreamgirls," based on the Broadway musical, is also getting a lot of Oscar attention.

And horror movies have often been big hits during the fall, particularly those released in October to capitalize on Halloween hype. Lionsgate (Charts), which has made a name for itself with many low-budget horror films, hopes to scare audiences again with "Saw III." The first two "Saw" movies have grossed $142.2 million at the box office.

Two other frightfests that could do well are Sony's "The Grudge 2," the sequel to the popular remake of a Japanese hit, and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" a prequel to the 1974 horror classic that is being released by Time Warner's New Line Cinema. (Time Warner (Charts) also owns CNNMoney.com.)

"October has the big triumvirate of horror films which should dominate the month," Pandya said.

Finally, there is one wild card that could emerge as a huge hit. "Eragon," the movie based on the kid's book about a boy and a dragon in a magical world, may very well wind up as a hot franchise for Fox, a subsidiary of News Corp (Charts). A sequel to the book has already been published and a third is in the works.

One constant over the past few winters is that there has been a big fantasy hit and this year, "Eragon," which will come out just before Christmas, is the only movie that fits that bill.

"With the right marketing, this could be the fantasy film that cleans up in December," Pandya said.


The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

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