December 2009 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
December 4, 2009

He's find that evil Gargamel! He will!

Increasingly, the season's really big blockbusters are being launched in November, with the more unpredictable titles reserved for December. That happened in 2008, and it's looking to be true again in December 2009, the last month of the decade. But December movies are notorious for growing unexpectedly monstrous legs, so it's hard to peg down exactly how high some of these titles are going to go. However, there's one particular film that appears to have a slight advantage over the rest, at least in theory...

1. Avatar (December 18th)

I guess if you're writing a preview of December 2009, you kind of have to put Avatar at #1, don't you? Even if you don't really feel like it? Even if you think there's a chance that those vicious Chipmunks might re-enact their '07 coup, or that people will really dig The Lovely Bones - all while Avatar is ignored by the masses, who frankly can't come up with a reason why they should get out there and see it? So here it is - the much-anticipated follow-up to the shocking box office events of spring '98, when Titanic repeated at #1 again, and again, and again. There're a lot of flashy special effects, some considerable buzz, and a lack of competition in the big action department, so Avatar ought to do at least fairly well. If there's a real audience embrace of the picture, we could see some legs drag it on to the next level. But for now, I'll go with my gut.

Opening weekend: $56 million / Total gross: $177 million

2. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (December 23rd)

You know, you and I might theoretically disapprove of those film execs who greenlit a sequel to the Chipmunk monstrosity - and then went ahead and named it "the Squeakquel", no less - but think about it this way: if you were running a major film studio, and a totally non-descript children's movie got out there and grossed a staggering two hundred and seventeen million dollars, what would you do? Make a sequel, too, of course. Don't try and deny it. And so here it is, Alvin and the Chipmunks Part II, ready and willing to take advantage of the lucrative Christmas box office slot. If I was Fox, I'd move this one to December 11th, and get those two extra weeks of holiday box office. Either way, this is going to be preternaturally big, though I do think it'll be one of those kids' sequels that comes in under the total of the first one, like the follow-ups to Scooby-Doo, Agent Cody Banks, or Cheaper by the Dozen. After all, there must be balance in the universe, and if this particular Squeakquel passes $250 million, things could get seriously out of whack.

Opening weekend: $55 million / Total gross: $176 million

3. The Lovely Bones (expands December 25th)

Peter Jackson returns with this scrumptious-looking modern fairy tale, a project that looks like a very crafty Oscar-bait combination of a star director, cast, and concept. The Jackson name hovering above all those nifty special effects is going to get this a decent opening, and give it some appeal to those who don't usually watch December dramas. Stars Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg are well chosen, Stanley Tucci seems exceptionally creepy as the supporting killer, and Saoirse Ronan looks to take Dakota Fanning's place as the go-to child actress for Serious Movies. But the key factor here is the reviews, which are going to make the difference between good and great box office.

Opening weekend: $27 million / Total gross: $144 million

4. It's Complicated (December 25th)

It's audience-pleasing big-star comedy time - and why not? That's a subgenre that'll never go out of style. There's a lot of smart casting going on here - Alec Baldwin as a crafty ex-husband, Steve Martin as a goof, and Meryl Streep as the audience identification figure - all peppered with a couple of choice supporting actors and a few big trailer laughs. The whole affair is looking very similar to director Nancy Meyers' own brilliant 2003 film, Something's Gotta Give, and it should play out pretty much exactly like it at the box office - inspiring adoration in that oft-ignored baby boomer demographic. And in me.

Opening weekend: $26 million / Total gross: $133 million

5. Did You Hear about the Morgans? (December 18th)

Just like It's Complicated, The Morgans are proof positive that studios still know what they're doing. After all, here's a perfect formula for a hit holiday movie: a high-concept premise (feuding city folk hiding out in God's country), two stars well experienced in the genre, and a release date right before the late December movie rush. If you're looking for $100 million, that's a bingo. And indeed, the Morgans are an absolute fit for the season, teaming up starlet Sarah Jessica Parker with long-time romantic comedy lead Hugh Grant (and it's a surprisingly effective match). The trailer is properly absurd, mixing some big laughs (anything said by Grant) with obvious cheap shots (the Sarah Palin line). Indeed, the Morgans seem apt to play out like a higher-scale version of 2002's romantic comedy duo, Maid in Manhattan and Two Weeks Notice, or a mini-me clone of The Proposal. It's Complicated does have a leg up over this - with probable better reviews and some Oscar buzz - but there should still be enough room for the bickersons to break out.

Opening weekend: $33 million / Total gross: $110 million

6. Nine (expands December 25th)

This is the movie that the similarly-titled burlap doll-fest only wishes it could have been (well, probably not). And what a collection of actors they've nabbed up here - romantic comedy queen bee Kate Hudson, unflinchingly serious method actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar-winning seductress Penelope Cruz, anti-box office activist Nicole Kidman, and '60s Italian starlet Sophia Loren - in what will be her first wide release since 1995. Indeed, in its flashy, star-studded ways, Nine resembles a latter-day version of Chicago; and clearly, a repeat of that film's incredible 2002 box office performance is the goal here. That's a target Nine probably isn't going to hit - musicals aren't as much of a novelty now as they were in 2002, for one thing - but a decent enough run should be in store, especially if critics give this their blessing.

Opening weekend: $25 million / Total gross: $100 million

7. The Princess and the Frog (expands December 11th)

The decade ends, and we come full circle. 2000-01 featured the rise of the CGI blockbuster and the visible on-screen death of traditional animation, so maybe it's appropriate that 2009 has a real chance to resurrect that late subgenre. Princess and the Frog is a great-looking movie and all, but are we all ready for old-school animation to be big again? The thing is, outside of the understandable exception of The Simpsons Movie, Lilo & Stitch was the only traditionally animated picture to gross over $100 million in the duration of this entire decade - and that was back in 2002. That means it's an uphill climb for Princess + Frog, but it's got a lot of things going for it. For one, there are some interesting opportunities for visual splendor - the New Orleans setting automatically provides animators with a chance to dabble in some Louisiana mythology: voodoo, bayous, witch doctors, talking crocodiles, and the like. How today's children - many of whom have never seen a traditionally animated film in theaters - are going to react to all this, I don't know. But give it a decent total, anyway, and maybe prove that old-school animation can co-exist alongside CGI in the 2010s.

Opening weekend: $27 million / Total gross: $89 million

8. Sherlock Holmes (December 25th)

It looks like I'm in the minority here, but I'm getting an increasingly bad feeling about the box-office prospects of this tentpole. On the one hand, people love Robert Downey Jr. now, no doubt about that. Rachel McAdams is a feisty female lead, Jude Law and Mark Strong are good support, and Guy Ritchie appears ready to take his act to the big-budget leagues. The trailers, for their part, do an excellent job of redefining the character - they're charming, light, and funny. But... but... but... it creeps up on me - this feeling of box office doom - and I can't quite put my finger on it. Are people really going to turn out in droves to see a Victorian-era mystery? On Christmas Day, no less? Sure, that trailer had some good laughs, but the plot seems a little murky, and as for kids - well, do they have any reason to see this? That very last shot in the trailer - "beneath this pillow lies the key to my release" - got some good laughs, but it's not exactly a warm invitation to family audiences, is it? Would parents really risk finding out what's under that pillow, when they can just as well take the kids to see the pesky musical rodents playing right down the hall?

Opening weekend: $25 million / Total gross: $73 million

9. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (limited on December 25th; expands at some point in our lifetime)

Now this is the month's absolute wild card. Parnassus may well be a $100 million earner. When you think about it, how could it not be? It's Heath Ledger's last film, it's got stars like Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, and the trailer is properly laced with special effects paraphernalia that feel right at home in the post-Lord of the Rings holiday season. Sure, the whole thing has a distinctly odd air about it - it's a Terry Gilliam film, after all - but that could be part of the appeal. The January expansion seems a little late in the game, though.

Total gross: eh, $65 million, for now

10. Up in the Air (limited release on December 4th; wide by January)

You know it's Christmas when George Clooney's back in town with yet another try for Best Actor. Playing out like a younger, sleeker version of About Schmidt - man re-evaluates the value of his life while traveling cross country - Up in the Air is Jason Reitman's follow-up to Juno, and it's clear that he's taking up the mantle of Alexander Payne in making these Oscar-season dramedies. Early word from the Toronto fest is good on this, and Clooney's name ought to be able to carry it to a decent enough sum (especially since I suspect he'll be the front-runner for that aforementioned Academy Award in just about no time).

Total gross: $60 million

11. Invictus (December 11th)

Here's a hefty dramatic combo - Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Matt Damon. That said, and as is often the case with Eastwood, Invictus looks blatantly uncommercial - almost offensively so. Even the title is uninviting. So will the film receive unanimous critical acclamation, followed by a slow but decidedly determined climb to a total gross of no less than one hundred million dollars? Maybe. Stay tuned.

Total gross: $51 million

12. Everybody's Fine(December 4th)

This dramedy looks mighty similar to last year's Last Chance Harvey, with the plot once again dabbling in an ignored parental figure who journeys to reconnect with his sullen offspring. Robert De Niro is nice, sad, and likeable in the lead, and the presence of polar opposites Drew Barrymore and Kate Beckinsale ought to give Everybody's Fine some tonal variety. If the reviews are decent enough, this one could actually nab a presentable little total for itself, even with some same-genre comeptition. It just looks like a good little story for the holidays, doesn't it?

Opening weekend: $10 million / Total gross: $37 million

13. Brothers (December 4th)

Here's a remake of a Danish film that plays like a gathering of the Oscar junior leagues: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman. Not too shabby, but a dark story like this only has so much box office appeal, and the trailer oddly descends from melodrama to near-thriller. I'm a little confused at the moment as to whether this is being positioned as a serious awards contender, or just a drama aimed at dampening the holiday cheer of audiences over the Christmas season. If it's not that Oscary, I don't see a particularly leggy run, just a good performance with a hint of legs. A smidgen.

Opening weekend: $9 million / Total gross: $33 million

14. Armored (December 4th)

This one's an action thriller pushed back from September, and so it's no surprise that it seems out of place among a batch of awards-bait comedy-dramas. Armored looks OK, but does anyone really want to spend the holiday season watching a bunch of people shooting each other? There's a reason that Christmas-set Die Hard 2 came out in July - these dark action movies don't do well in December, and so Armored may well repeat the legendary box office performance of Punisher: War Zone.

Opening weekend: $5 million / Total gross: $13 million