Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fox wrests control of 'Watchmen' distrib rights from WB in preliminary ruling

By Sarah Sluis

Remember when you were a kid and sick of all your toys, and then a friend would come over, start having fun with one of your discarded toys, and all of a sudden it was "MINE!" But maybe the toy kind of Watchmenlegal

belonged to both of you, or one of you had left it at the other's house for a really, really, long time? That's kind of what's going on with Warner Bros. and Fox over Watchmen.

Watchmen had been an orphan child for years, shopped around to multiple studios by Larry Gordon, when Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder finally adopted it. As they completed production on the film, Fox filed suit, claiming that through a previous agreement, they should have been able to look at the package once Snyder came on board--Snyder being that red bow who would have finally made the movie appealing. In an expedited ruling (Warner plans--or planned--to release the film in three months), a judge ruled that Fox does have distribution rights. So how did this happen in the first place? Was this an oversight, a misinterpretation of complicated or vague legal documents, or a gamble to avoid the hassle of sorting out the rights, and as THR pointed out, a desire to avoid turnaround fees that Gordon might have had to pay in order to free the project from Fox?

The complexity surrounding this game of "dibs" makes all three scenarios likely. In any case, much was left unsaid: Gordon declined to testify, which aggravated the judge, a point he made clear when he awarded distribution rights to Fox.

What now? The judge's ruling is a bit Solomon-like: it cuts the baby in half. Warner has already started marketing the film in advance of its March 6th release date, which Fox now plans to block. Warner will appeal the ruling, and go to trial if necessary, but a trial would also delay the release date. A settlement seems the only way to avoid the gore of cutting the baby in half or moving to a less optimal release date

If Warner failed to properly secure rights, why didn't Fox try to contest its part-ownership of the project sooner? Reports differ--some say Fox did mention its claim to ownership over the project to Warner. Lawsuits are expensive, and the timing of the lawsuit--after the production finished--makes it seems as if Fox was gauging the cost/benefit of legal action for some time before deciding to file suit.

A couple other significant rights/turnaround issues have occurred in recent months: Twilight, a film with one of the highest returns on investment of the year, was plucked in turnaround by Summit after Paramount rejected the project. Earlier this year, the estate that owned the rights to Rear Window filed action against Disturbia, which reinterpreted the plot and placed Shia LaBeouf in the Jimmy Stewart role. Making Fox's timing look not so bad, the suit was filed a year after the film released, even though a simple Google search of "Rear Window + Disturbia" pulls ups tons of critical reviews pointing out the similarities between the two films.

The trial is scheduled for January 20th. Fox needs the film to be released in order to profit. For Warner, sharing rights would lead to a hefty cut in the profit: will the two studios be able to reach a settlement, or will they take their grievances to court?

Monday, December 29, 2008

'Marley & Me' charms holiday audiences

By Sarah Sluis

When I expressed my skepticism over Marley & Me (a little too adorable-looking, don't you think?), a fOwen wilson marleyriend's mother, who had been hyping the film to me, asked if I was ever a dog owner. If I wasn't, she

said, I just wouldn't understand.

Considering the popularity of pooches among families--and that includes critics--PG-rated Marley & Me proved to be the most enticing option for families over the holiday weekend. The critical applause, included that of our reviewer Doris Toumarkine, who called Marley & Me "[P]erfect holiday entertainment. Families, dog lovers and even demanding breeds of filmgoers will adore it." These thumbs-ups helped pull the film to a $51 million finish, 30% more than the runner up, younger-skewing Bedtime Stories.

It makes sense: Marley & Me appealed to families with teen and adult children (my friend's family falling in that category), while Bedtime Stories targeted the narrower crowd that's still telling bedtime stories to each other. The dog-themed success, coupled with this year's earlier surprise smash, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, must be making studios scratch their heads looking around for another dog title to put into development. However, I chance that eventually there will be a burnout in pet pictures. January's kid-adventurer picture Hotel for Dogs might be the canary-in-a-coal-mine test to see if there's any dog-related viewing fatigue. After all, even playing fetch gets old after awhile.

Other family pleasers Yes Man, Seven Pounds, and The Tale of Despereaux, which finished 1-2-3 last week, moved down to fifth, sixth, and seventh, each dropping a similar amount from last week's open. As audiences see their second- and third-pick movies over the coming weeks, one might break ranks and rise above the others.

For adults, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earned $39 million over the Christmas holiday, while Valkyrie made off with $30 million. Button's expected awards campaign should keep it in a top position in coming weeks, while Valkyrie dies off (just like the hero's Nazi coup!).

Among awards contenders, Revolutionary Road earned the most per-screen, bringing in a $64,000 per-screen average at each of its six locations for a total of $196,000. Waltz with Bashir, a Christmas day-opener set in Israel with special appeal to Jewish filmgoers, earned $10,240 per-screen across five locations, taking advantage of the informal Christmas day viewing tradition among Jews. Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino expanded to 84 locations, but kept its per-screen average at $29,048, bringing its cumulative total to $4.3 million. Frost/Nixon, Milk, and Slumdog Millionaire earned in the $7,000 per-screen range, a performance mitigated by being in a wider release and over a month old. Awards voters are a finicky bunch, but having your opinions reinforced by a wider audience certainly helps when it comes to statuette success.

Full box-office estimates available here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

O Box Office, O Box Office: Christmas Releases

By Sarah Sluis

What better holiday gift than a quality, award-baiting film at the box-office? With a Forrest Gump-type storyline and a bang-for-your-buck running time of 167 minutes, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button BRADPITTBUTTONCATE

(2,900 screens)
hopes to entice its audience with the special effects of Brad Pitt aging in reverse, the exploitative inclusion of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina (sooo worth the $27 million tax credit), and its "must-see" marketing push. Sifting through the critical responses, it seems tackling the start-to-finish of Button's life forced a Catch-22, where either pacing or length would have to be sacrificed. Many reviewers grumbled about the long length of the film, but, as our Ethan Alter notes, "a shorter cut may have made the studio and theatre owners happier, but it would have robbed Benjamin Button (and those of us in the audience) of a rich, full life."

Tom Cruise wears an eyepatch and attempts to kill Hitler in Valkyrie (2,500 screens). Sure he's a Maverick, but I don't know if I, or anyone else, will be able to sit through one more WWII or Holocaust film. While I can appreciate how the slightly unhinged nature of Cruise's star persona would make him a perfect candidate to portray Colonel von Stauffenberg, I'm just not interested.

In the feel-good section, funnyman Adam Sandler stars in Bedtime Stories (3,500 screens). The "what-if" concept has Sandler's niece and nephew in control of his future: each contribution they make to his bedtime story comes true the next day. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston team up for Marley & Me (3,300 screens), about a couple's adoption of a lovable dog. All the press about the film seems to beMarley me snowman

more about the rats the cat dragged in. Wilson--whose agent must have desperately searched for anything lighthearted after his drug overdose--walked out of interviews when the subject was brought up, and Aniston's tie-only GQ photo shoot seemed to be a pointed message toward her ex-husband. Still, despite all this noise about the stars, dog-lovers are a demographic in themselves, and with Beverly Hills Chihuahua a box-office slam-dunk, not one to be underestimated.

Fanboys will have The Spirit (2,400 screens) to watch after they unwrap their video games. Frank Miller wrote and directed the film, but his intensive involvement seems to have worked against him, since our Frank Lovece found him "truly unsuited" to film Will Eisner's comic book. With the crowded market, this film's success will depend on the eagerness of Eisner/Miller fans.

Releasing on 3 screens with an eye to expand, Revolutionary Road opens the day after Christmas. A solid, star-draped film, our Executive Editor Kevin Lally enjoyed watching "two gifted stars surpassing themselves, especially in those fierce scenes of confrontation where their grievances turn corrosive," and noted it offers the chance for the audience to "connect with their failed dreams." Last Chance Harvey, another favorite of Lally, also opens on Christmas on 6 screens. About a couple that finds romance in an airport bar after Dustin Hoffman is snubbed from walking his daughter down the aisle, the hopeful story will offer encouragement for those experiencing even mild familial estrangement.

Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli documentary of remembrance, will also roll out in NY and LA around Christmas, although its guilt-ridden exploration of violence does not make it the best choice for those wanting to remain in the holiday spirit. Happy holidays from the staff of Film Journal, and we'll see you next week!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cute mice in 'The Tale of Despereaux,' and what weighs 'Seven Pounds'?

By Sarah Sluis

The box-office goodies releasing this weekend include Jim Carrey, Will Smith, and animated mice. Schools will be closed next week, prompting the release of PG-13 and G-rated films targeted at drawing Despereaux

in children and their extended families. While both Jim Carrey and Will Smith have considerable star power, the comedic draw of Carrey, who Doris Toumarkine called, "this century's Jerry Lewis", will definitely win over families searching for light-hearted fare. The teens who first embraced Carrey in The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective have aged up, so the drab, mid-life crisis premise of Yes Man (3,434 screens) bodes well for a good reception from suffering from that novel appellation, the "mid-twenties crisis."

Seven Pounds (2,758 screens),the secretively-premised story that involves Will Smith, suicide, and do-gooding, projects the same vibe as 2006's earnest offering and box-office success, The Pursuit of Happyness. Considering that atrocious Hancock has earned over $600 million at the worldwide box office, this film's recalcitrant reviews--critics in general tend to be a little Grinch-like when it comes to sentimentality--should have little effect on the box-office take. After all, suicide is a big part of one of the most beloved holiday classics, It's A Wonderful Life.

The Vermeer-inspired artwork in The Tale of Despereaux (3,104 screens) should make sitting through the film a palatable experience for adults and a magical one for children. It's certainly not the best animated film of the year, WALL-E having shushed all competition; our Frank Lovece finds the whiskered hero "as bland and undefined as the

voiceless robot WALL-E is rich and individualistic," and faults an over-reliance on tired tropes and territory trod by Dumbo and Ratatouille.

For unaccompanied adults, The Wrestler (4 screens) and The Class (6 screens), two of the most highly acclaimed indie releases this year, both open today. While I haven't seen The Class, the story of aTomei Rourke Wrestler

teacher and his multicultural students in the French suburbs, a chance to see a film speaking to France's xenophobic tendencies should not be missed (The Secret of the Grain, the story of a French-Arab family, opens on 12/24 at IFC.) Incorporating a hefty amount of nudity and violence, The Wrestler shocks with self-inflicted razor cuts, staged poundings, Marisa Tomei on a stripper pole, and steroid injections. Quite miraculously, given the subject material, director Darren Aronofsky manages to make this grittiness an extension of the familial and financial struggles of Mickey Rourke. Like the heroin- and amphetamine-addicted characters in Requiem for a Dream, he makes Rourke's "drugs, sex, and violence" experience a humiliating, grotesque series of events propelled by a murkily-understandable drive. Sure to gather up some Oscar nominations, both films should post high per-screens as audiences check out the awards buzz that has built for the two them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Spam and Second Life coming to a theatre near you

By Sarah Sluis

Pretty much everyone has received one of those poorly-worded, cryptic emails from a king in Nigeria.  The sender implores you to send him money so he can free up millions of his own funds--which he will in Tracy_morgan
turn send to you, if only you help.  Yeah, right.  The idea that a real person exists behind that spam, though, will be the subject of a new comedy starring Tracy Morgan.  The premise has a college student drunkenly responding to one such email (although apparently $100 million has been earned from these scams, no screenwriter would subject us to spending an hour and a half with someone gullible enough to do such a thing sober) and being surprised by a prince showing up at his doorstep.  There you have it, Freshman RoommatesLast I checked, Morgan was 40, so it appears he will play the Nigerian prince, and T.J. Miller (Cloverfield) will play the college student helping Morgan secure his inheritance.  The selling point of this film is great, but when it all boils down will this be just another cultural difference, fish-out-of-water comedy, a tweak on the wife-seeking Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America?

Second Life, not spam, inspired the second Internet-related pickup.  After seeing a depressing WSJ article about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating due to the husband's involvement, and virtual marriage, in online world Second Life, director Gore Verbinski acquired the rights and has tasked Steven Knight with writing a screenplay based on the piece. 

I'm curious about how and even if Verbinski will depict the virtual world.  He's no stranger to special effects, having directed Pirates of the Caribbean, so what will he use to animate the virtual world? Verbinski_second_life
Rotoscoping?  CGI?  Or live-action, which would be a deliberate choice in itself?  I definitely think there's a cheese factor with watching "real" action unfold with video game-type graphics.  For most people, Second Life is a bizarre curiosity, so watching people earnestly living out fake lives through avatars is either ironic or sad.  If the story is told from the perspective of the husband, Verbinski will need to use rotoscoping or live-action to make us understand his obsession.  If it's mainly the wife, graphics true to Second Life should stay intact.

Lopez takes on 'Plan B,' Witherspoon fills schedule gap with James L. Brooks comedy

By Sarah Sluis

In what a high-concept pitchster might term Knocked Up meets Baby Mama, Jennifer Lopez will star in Plan B, a rom com about a woman who finally gives up finding a man and pursues Plan B, her local artificial insemination clinic.  As "luck" would have it, the same day she jubilantly pees on a stick turns out to be the day she meets the man of her dreams.  Although "Plan B" refers to the Reesewitherspoon039_70073marytylermooreposters_3
children-without-a-man idea, it's also the trademarked name of an emergency contraception (not an abortion pill) on the market---do I hear a cease-and-desist coming up?

For an actress like Reese Witherspoon, a five-month gap in projects just. cannot. be.  With production on her Cameron Crowe film pushed back to July, Witherspoon will team up with James L. Brooks, who is busily writing an ensemble comedy screenplay that he also plans to direct. 

In the early days of Crowe's career, it appears that he reached out to Brooks as a mentor, making the hand-off between the
two natural.  Since Columbia has not released any details about the project other than the "ensemble comedy" I previously mentioned, as well as a working title, How Do You Know?, let's review some of his previous work to guess what a Brooks-written Reese Witherspoon character would be like in the comedy:

  • A Helen Hunt-type role, like in As Good as it Gets?: Signs point to no.  Nicholson was the main event there, and Witherspoon's film persona has too much "spunk" to be stymied in a waitress role.  She's a career girl--a lawyer (Legally Blonde), singer (Walk the Line), social/political climber (Vanity Fair, Sweet Home Alabama, Election)

  • So if she's a career girl, does that mean she'll be like Mary Tyler Moore?  In some ways.  The one

    thing about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," though, was that it was very "workplace as family."  Although I know the show more from TV Land than real time, she was still subordinate to her boss and he was very much a father figure to her, barring the occasional romantic overtones.

  • Where does this leave us?  Broadcast News.  A hole in my film knowledge, the movie centers on a career woman who falls for a shallow, pretty-boy entertainment news producer (No, I'm not talking about the upcoming The Ugly Truth, though now that you mention it...), while, of course, the insecure correspondent, who's probably a better fit for her, languishes. 

Reese Witherspoon mentioned in a recent interview that the news drama is one of her favorite films, so my guess is that Brooks will draw on Broadcast News and a Mary Tyler Moore-type character and/or ensemble for the film.  Mark your calendars, this one sounds worthy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Specialty releases pack sold-out theatres; 'Day the Earth Stood Still' earns $31 million

By Sarah Sluis

The $31 million earned by The Day the Earth Stood Still seems just about right for me.  The so-so Day_the_earth_stood_still_keanu
reviews drew disaster, alien, and special-effects fans (especially to see the film on IMAX) but didn't fool anyone into thinking they would be seeing something on par with Keanu Reeves' performance in The Matrix--this was more like a Constantine.

Four Christmases continued to do strong business (I need to see this film!), with the solid comedic team of Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn ensuring a pleasant repose after a long day of holiday shopping.  The storyline about endless, annoying relatives seems apt after the difficult task of finding the perfect gift for everyone on your list.

Much to my relief, no one showed up for Delgo.  Earning $424 per screen, that means roughly 40 people came to see the animated disaster (not to one showing...over the whole weekend).  I can believe that 40 people in a given area would have no better way to spend 88 minutes than at that movie, so I feel satisfied about its sub-$1 million performance.

Four awards-bait films opened this weekend, and all earned above $10k per screen, a great performance out of the gate (compare this with the winner of the week, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which posted only $8,708 per screen).

     Top Six Per-Screen Averages

  1. Gran Torino: $47,333/per screen, 6 locations

  2. Doubt: $35,000/per screen , 15 locations

  3. Che: $30,050/per screen, 2 locations

  4. The Reader: $30,050/per screen, 8 locations

  5. Frost/Nixon: $16,154/per screen, 39 locations (2nd week)

  6. Slumdog Millionaire: $13,154/per screen, 169 locations (5th week)

Not on this list is Milk.  Shut out of a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama, which drained the movie of some of its buzz, the Gus Van Sant film earned $8,037 per screen, finishing just below the per-screen average of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Riding its wave of Golden Globe nominations, Slumdog Millionaire boosted its per-screen average even as it increased the number of screens in its release, settling the film in that elusive sweet spot of awards material with commercial recognition.  Releasing so much earlier than other rewards fodder has paid off so far for the film.  I saw it over six weeks ago, and its unusual story and superb execution still bring a warm glow of appreciation to my mind.  Without any backlash ("sappy" will be the mud of choice), and growing box-office receipts to support its buzz, this film is my awards favorite so far.

Still, all of the award-baiting films in the top five have yet to expand their release, so the relative success of one film over another will play a part in the allotment of Oscar nominations, which won't be announced until January 22nd.  Also, Golden Globe nominees Revolutionary Road and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have not yet been released, still making this a wide-open race.

Full studio estimates available here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

'Gran Torino,' revving up, but 'Day the Earth Stood Still' should conquer box office

By Sarah Sluis

Alien-takeover remake The Day the Earth Stood Still will invade the box office this weekend, playing on 3,560 screens and ensuring at least some people will opt to enter one of those hourly multiplex showings.  Keanu Reeves does his blank-faced best as Klaatu.  Like The Matrix, the movie appears to be heavy with religious symbolism, with Reeves once again playing a Christ figure who raises people from the dead and walks on water.  The 1951 version used the national fear over the atom bomb to great effect; the remake replaces bombs with our environmental problems, but falls short, leading our Daniel Eagan to conclude that director Scott Derrickson "didn't find a way to make The Day the Earth Stood

meaningful for a modern-day audience."  If you've worn out your copies of those alien disaster movies of the past twelve years--Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, or The War of the Worlds--you'll probably get more of the same-old here.

Gran Torino releases today in 6 theatres, joining The Reader, which opened Wednesday on 8 screens.  Gran_torinoThe movie has garnered some positive reviews, with critics assenting that it's a good Eastwood film-- our Rex Roberts notes the director has "the singular ability to turn bombast into poignancy."  But, like Changeling, the film is certainly not Clint's best work.  Eastwood plays a racist holdout in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, who befriends a young Hmong neighbor after the boy is bullied into playing out Grand Auto Theft with Eastwood's prized car.  Taking a note from those teen actresses that parlay their popularity into recording deals, Eastwood sings a song over the credits.  Of course, given that it's Clint, there's considerably more dignity involved.

The Debra Messing/John LeGuizamo-starrer Nothing Like The Holidays will open on 1,671 screens.  A serviceable, "clich-ridden story," its execution and attention to detail redeem the home-for-the-holidays plot.  Our David Noh praised the script for details like Messing's "desperate assimilating attempts to speak Spanish with a torturously 'correct' accent."  Much of Beverly Hills Chihuahua's heat came from Hispanic viewers, but whether Overture Films will be able to successfully mobilize this demographic for the movie will have to wait until Monday.

Animated fairy tale Delgo (2,160 screens), a multi-millionaire's pet project, opens today, and I sincerely hope audiences avoid this debacle.  Didn't someone tell the millionaire that your anthromorphizedDelgo4
characters are supposed to look cute?   Featuring the ugliest dinosaur-esque creatures, rendered in "videogame-quality CGI," according to Frank Lovece, the film seems terribly wishy-washy, ending with a climax that "flogs the verity of compassion, touting it as a good and important thing...and then shows how you're an idiot for being compassionate."  The film's ten-year gestation film is also apparent through its casting choices.  Erstwhile teen stars Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt no longer have the same draw they did back in 1997's I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the memorable actress Anne Bancroft passed away before the film's completion.  I wouldn't even pick up the film in a $4.99 DVD bargain bin, because then I would have to look at those awful dinosaur things.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler to star in bounty hunting rom-com

By Sarah Sluis

Writer Sarah Thorp must have really got into watching Dog: The Bounty Hunter during the writers' strike, Jennifer_aniston
because her recently greenlit script mines the subject for its meet-cute.  Gerard Butler (P.S. I Love You) will play a bounty hunter hired to track down his ex-wife (Jennifer Aniston), who has skipped bail.  If the movie dispenses with the ridiculousness right off the bat, I see a lot of potential: Romantic comedies often use unbelievable contrivances to get couples to hate each other (the sloppily executed misunderstanding is my pet peeve), but the premise itself makes the inevitable verbal sparring believable by default.

The project will be directed by Andy Tennant, who has made a career out of mediocre romantic comedies (although I really liked Ever After).  He most recently directed Fool's Gold, which, like this bounty-hunting film, placed its unhappy couple in the midst of a money-grubbing plot.  In Sweet Home Alabama, he directed Josh Lucas in a vulgar-but-redeeming hick role, which he could have a chance to reprise here, either with Butler, Aniston, or both. Given that the most prominent cultural
image of a bounty hunter is the blond, mulletted Dog: The Bounty Hunter I mentioned earlier, and hisBounty_hunter_3

similarly bleached blonde wife/assistant, I believe I'm making a safe assumption about their characterization.  Although romantic comedies are a pet genre for me, I'm constantly getting my hopes dashed.  This year's 27 Dresses was the most palatable of the bunch, but inspired this observation from our critic Daniel Eagan's review: "Romantic comedies are becoming an endangered species in part because they are so predictable."

There's hope: Most of my favorite romantic comedies over the past few years have deviated from the genre in a most important way: plot.  Legally Blonde and The Devil Wears Prada, for example, were female-oriented career comedies with a romance thrown in.  Judd Apatow-brand comedies (4The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad) place males at the center of the romance, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a throwback to vintage screwball and Mean Girls (like Superbad) was a teen comedy with a side romance.  Do these films signal a new age of romantic comedy?  With the social conventions that blocked the love in most romantic comedies dead and gone, it appears career-romance or buddy comedy plus romance might be taking over.

Monday, December 8, 2008

'Four Christmases' spends second week at the top

By Sarah Sluis

With the weekend's two new releases, Cadillac Records and Punisher: War Zone, failing to make an impact with their $3.5 and $4 million grosses, the post-Thanksgiving weekend saw a 50% drop in the box Frostnixon
office as a whole. 

Four Christmases remained at number one, earning $18.1 million and dropping a below-average 41%.  Twilight gave me a pleasant surprise by rising to number two, leveling out after last week's heavy drop and earning $13.1 million.  Director Catherine Hardwicke, who now holds the title of "highest opening weekend ever for a female director," will not return to direct the second project due to "timing" issues.  Unfortunate, given that this opening offers a woman a foothold into the male-dominated profession of film director, but, gender issues aside, the quality of the franchise could definitely be improved, and a change in leadership will be the most effective way to bolster the feeling and execution of the vampire romance.

Frost/Nixon opened on three screens, earning $60,000 per-screen.  The astounding number puts Milk's $50k and Slumdog's $30k per-screen to shame.  The excellent per-screen performance of the movie begs the question--why release on only three screens to begin with?  Given the volume of media and press for Frost/Nixon, the fact-based drama certainly could have opened on more screens while still selling out theatres.  Impressive openings help a film once it gets to the DVD market, but I wonder if Frost/Nixon might have rolled out the bulk of its "buzz" too soon.  Perhaps alluding to the $60k per-screen of Frost/Nixon, THR's Risky Business blog weighed in on the per-screen average metric, a "key indicator of a film's reception among early adopters [and] core audiences."  According to the theory they're using, specialty releases that roll out and expand while dropping less than 50% from a per-screen perspective can safely be called successes.  Slumdog Millionaire and Milk fall into that category (so far), will they be joined by Frost/Nixon?

Complete studio estimates available here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Weekend of Leftovers...and 'Punisher: War Zone'

By Sarah Sluis

Deferring to the blitz of movies released over Thanksgiving weekend, only one film opens to wide releaseW_caddillacbeyonce_pk02
this week, Punisher: War Zone (2,508 screens).  The comic book sequel should break the top five, better than last week's action sequel Transporter 3, but the movie's lackluster reviews certainly won't electrify audiences or even fanboys. 

With Four Christmases, Australia, Bolt, and Twilight returning for their second and third week, more eyes will focus on the performance of these holdovers.  Australia opened to a lackluster $20 million, and its success or failure will be determined this weekend, when analysts measure just how much it drops from last week.  Bolt, which rebounded from its Twilight-induced third place opening by posting the same numbers over Thanksgiving (unlike Twilight, which dropped nearly 70%), should finally drop a little this weekend, but the real sign of its longevity won't come until schools let out for winter break--will parents bring their children to Bolt or choose something else?   Last week's number one release, Four Christmases, should hold its appeal through this weekend, especially now that audiences have heard piped Christmas music for a week in virtually every public place.

Last week four specialty releases cleared a million dollars (Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Changeling). While the latter two films are winding down,  Milk and Slumdog Millionaire both expand their releases this week. Milk will move onto 99 screens and Slumdog Millionaire onto 78, including new markets Atlanta, Detroit, and Indianapolis.  Both films are sure to rack up Oscar nominations, so they're worth seeing.

Beyond wide releases, Cadillac Records (686 screens) and Nobel Son
(893 screens) both open moderately this week.  Starring Adrien Brody and Beyonce Knowles, the glamorous and flashy musical was dubbed "rollicking and insightful" by the New York Times but "overstuffed" by our reviewer, David Noh.

A stylistically flashy film, Nobel Son
seems to have inspired a "love it or hate it" response, and is currently tracking at 21% on RottenTomatoes.  Our critic David Noh called it "over the top but in a good way," and predicts the film will have a cult following.  Lastly, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon opens on 3 screens, and the positively reviewed film will now have a chance to gain or lose momentum based on audience response.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kristen Stewart to play Joan Jett in "The Runaways"

By Sarah Sluis

Ever heard of the band The Runaways?  If you're like me, born after their heyday in the 1970s, you might Rways1
not know about this all-girl band famous for "Cherry Bomb" and "Schoolgirls" (cleverly available, occasionally with katakana subtitles, on YouTube).  Today, River Road productions announced the casting decision of Kristen Stewart (maybe you've heard of that vampire film, Twilight?) as Joan Jett, the lead singer of the band.  Stewart looks remarkably similar to Jett, who went on to sing such classics as "I Love Rock and Roll" and "Bad Reputation." The idea of a rise/fall story centering on female band  members strikes me as novel and compelling.  The tough, devil-may-care attitude of the band contrasts fabulously
with the only other "girl power" band picture I've seen--the
hideous Spice World, a film for which I had to create the category "Worst Film I Have Ever Seen."  (Trivia buffs will note 1981's Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and 1988's Satisfaction depicted girl bands)  For most of the intended audience, the character of Joan Jett will be a blank slate, but grounding the rise/fall story with an actual (and interesting) character is a smart move that adds authenticity and offers up a mythic220pxkristen_stewart
figure far better than, say, Britney Spears.

While I laud 2006's Dreamgirls for depicting a group of successful, powerful singers, most band films, like That Thing You Do and Almost Famous, relegate
women to groupiedom (in the case of the latter, Kate
Hudson's compelling performance and insistence on being called a band-aid helped empower her character).  I'm excited to see an edgy, authentic rocker on the big screen, and hope this project will join the wave of 2008's "surprise" female-targeted hits, Sex and the City and Twilight.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Spirit Awards in a downbeat mood

By Sarah Sluis

The Independent Spirit Awards announced their nominees this morning.  Unlike last year, which was swept by crossover blockbuster Juno both in terms of nominations and awards, three films tied for most Ballastfilm
nominations, with Rachel Getting Married, Ballast, and Frozen River each receiving six nominations, including the Best Feature nod.

The two other Best Feature nominees, Wendy and Lucy and The Wrestler, have only been seen on the festival circuit.(Could these movies' late releases have impacted the volume of their nominations?)  Wendy and Lucy will play at NYC's Film Forum December 10th-23rd, and The Wrestler, angling for a Best Actor nomination for Mickey Rourke, will release on December 19th.  While narrowing down the top five Independent films can be a trial each year, The Visitor and Milk, each nominated in other categories besides Best Feature, could easily have held their own among the top features, at least if FJI's Executive Editor Kevin Lally had anything to do the selections.

Of the five nominees for Best Feature, I can only speak to Rachel Getting Married and Wendy and Lucy (at least until I see The Wrestler next week).  Depending on your taste, "meandering" can either compliment or insult Rachel Getting Married and its long musical and dance sequences.  The quiet spiral of despair and destitution of Wendy and Lucy can be painful to watch, though director Kelly Reichardt wisely gives the audience moments to rest.  Frozen River, the story of two trapped women smuggling immigrants to make ends meet, boasts a "grasp of time, place and state of mind and economy [that] is firm and unforgettable."  Ballast also focuses on a rural landscape where "poverty seems to be endemic, drug dealing rampant, and possibilities extremely limited."  Indeed, of the five films, Rachel Getting Married is the black sheep, its addict a product of an upper-middle-class, suburban home, and theChopshop2
general mood far from hopeless.

While not nominated for Best Feature, I particularly liked Chop Shop, which received nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography.  There's nothing worse than an earnest low-budget film marred by terrible image quality, but Chop Shop plays like a collection of photographs, its depiction of an urban slum a bleaker and more static version of Slumdog Millionaire's.

The full list of nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards can be found here, but the awards ceremony won't take place for almost three months-- February 21st.

Kate & Leo's revelations at 'Revolutionary Road' Q&A

By Kevin Lally

Co-stars of the biggest movie of all time, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are also two of the most Revolutionary_road_2 gifted actors of their generation. DiCaprio, 34, has earned three Oscar nominations, while Winslet, 33, is the youngest actress to have attained five Oscar nods. Each actor gives an exceptionally strong performance in director Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, certain to be recognized by the Academy when nominations are announced on January 22.

DiCaprio, Winslet, Mendes, and supporting actors Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour and Zoe Kazan were all on hand for a Q&A session moderated by Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers at a packed Producers Guild screening of Revolutionary Road at the AMC 34th Street Theatre in Manhattan last night. They seemed happy to be there, and justifiably proud of their work.

Based on the celebrated 1961 novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a onetime "golden" couple whose marriage and dreams are suffocated by life in suburbia in the 1950s. Their impetuous plan to change their fates and move to Paris merely underscores the fragility of their bond.

Winslet, working for the first time with her director husband Mendes, described the theme of the Yates novel as "the eternal struggle to find happiness." In the search for personal identity, she confided, "we all experience moments of incredible pain." The tragedy of Frank and April is that "they don't even know what they're hoping for anymore."

DiCaprio marveled at the "voyeuristic quality" of the material. "You shouldn't be hearing these conversations," he said, adding that Yates "taps into the unconscious voice we all have."

The two stars were thrilled by the complex emotional demands of their parts, and they each deliver arguably their strongest, rawest performances under Mendes' direction. "I couldn't wait to attack Kate," DiCaprio said of the movie's most ferocious moments opposite his onetime Titanic love and close friend.

Winslet confessed that "I don't switch off" at the end of the shooting day, unlike her husband, which led to a few unwelcome middle-of-the-night pleas to discuss new insights about her character.

Adding some fun to the Q&A were the supporting cast. Bates, who plays an intrusive neighbor, said she lost weight for the role but was distressed to see new wrinkles. "I look exactly like my mother!" she lamented.  Harbour, who plays one of the Wheelers' best friends, joked that his intimate dance scene with Winslet made just the desired impression: "sexy and pathetic."

But the night's scene-stealer, just as in the film, was New York theatre veteran Michael Shannon, who plays Bates' bluntly truthful son, recovering from shock treatments in an insane asylum. "I'm not right for many parts," he gratefully acknowledged about this award-bait role. When Travers asked the panel why modern audiences should relate to a story about a disintegrating marriage in the 1950s, Shannon had a retort worthy of his volatile character: "Not all films can be as contemporary and relevant as vampires and James Bond."

Monday, December 1, 2008

'Four Christmases' cheers up box office

By Sarah Sluis

Hollywood had a lot to be thankful for this weekend.  Grossing 4% more than last year's Thanksgiving
weekend, the box office showed no signs of recession.  Holiday picture Four Christmases came in at number one with a $31.6 million gross, but with the top seven films each earning at least $10 million, there was plenty of holiday cheer to spread around.  Bolt actually increased its take 1% from last week, earning $26.5 million for the weekend and proving that families sidetracked by Twilight would come back to see a reliably entertaining Disney picture.

Twilight finished at number three with $26.3 million, dropping 62%.  The spike downward does not necessarily spell a swift demise for the picture.  With winter break coming up, teen fans who saw the film in the opening weekend will have the chance to come back for repeat viewings and spread the word among their less devoted friends.

Australia finished on the low side, earning $14.8 million for the three-day weekend and $20 million for the five-day total.  Despite tracking highly among women over 25, the picture did not skew strongly towards that demographic, attracting equal amounts of men and women, and only a slight (65%) skew in audiences over 25 (i.e. people went with their families).  If this film is truly drawing a Nights of Rodanthe-type crowd, who didn't have the time to see the movie because of their turkey-basting duties, Australia will stick around through the holiday season and cross at least $50 million.  Working against the film, however, is that this film already received a huge push from Oprah a few weeks back, giving it plenty of time to work up anticipation among a crowd that relies heavily on word-of-mouth to make their moviegoing decisions.  Next weekend, which will have an open schedule with plenty of room to pick up audience members, will determine the box-office playability of Baz Luhrman's romantic epic.

Among specialty releases, Milk and Slumdog Millionaire both wowed audiences and the box office.  Milk earned an astounding $38,375 per theatre ($52,627 for the five-day holiday) in its debut, and third-weeker Slumdog's $27,890 per theatre prompted Fox Searchlight to announce that the film will expand to 600 theatres by December 19th.  Both of these films have received a healthy amount of Oscar buzz, and their robust ticket sales validate their potential as Academy Award contenders.

Full box office results available here.