Weekend Forecast for August 20-22, 2004
By Reagen Sulewski
August 20, 2004

I had a comment here, but it seems to have slipped my mind.

The late August spectacle of violence and mayhem continues, though in a month that has been stronger in past years, the late calendar date in the season doesn't guarantee a tepid weekend at the box office. Two medium to strong releases and a major expansion should make for an exciting race for the top spot.

The theme of the summer might well have been, "More the same than ever!” Nowhere is that more evident than in the number of sequels and remakes this summer. Warner Bros liked the idea of an Exorcist prequel so much they made it twice, firing director Paul Schrader after he turned in a completed version The Exorcist: The Beginning. Finnish genre-whore Renny Harlin was brought in to reshoot 90% of the film and won't be getting a Christmas card from Schrader anytime soon. Schrader has indicated that he was shooting a psychological drama, but fell prey to one of the classic blunders; never take on a Hollywood exec when schlock is on the line.

In addition to reshooting the existing scenes to add more red stuff, they rewrote the screenplay and added and removed characters. Somehow the budget is still claimed to be at $40 million, but if you believe that, I've got some bargain land in Najaf to sell you. While an Exorcist prequel has been rumored for a long time, getting the film off the starting blocks was no doubt a result of the strong performance of the re-release of the original film in September of 2000, when it earned about $40 million, a king's ransom for a 30-year-old film. At one point there was talk of trying to digitally de-age Max von Sydow (who looks like he was born 60), but that's probably too much creepy for any one film. Instead, Stellan Skarsgard steps in (keeping it all in Sweden, a nice touch) to play the "young" version of Father Merrin.

Centered around the discovery of an ancient Byzantine temple in Eastern Africa (nowhere near where the Byzantines ever got), Exorcist: The Beginning centers around the first battle that Father Karras (played here by relative unknown James D'Arcy) and Father Merrin had with Pazuzu, who their characters would later fight in The Exorcist. We all know how well that turned out for them. Setting aside the fundamental futility of prequels, there is likely a pretty high demand for this franchise, judging by the response to the re-release. Though there's not anyone most horror fans would recognize by name in the film - save Isabella Scorupco - last week's Alien vs. Predator showed that's not really necessary with a strong franchise, a bill that The Exorcist certainly fits. And yet it could have been much more; there's almost nothing in the trailers and commercials to actually intrigue or shock even though they've been pushing it pretty hard. I'd look here for an opening weekend gross of about $19 million but unless they can pull off a miracle, this film might be destined for box office hell.

One of the reasons might be direct competition in the scares genre from Open Water, best described as "Blair Witch on the Water." Two SCUBA divers are left behind by their boat in the middle of the ocean in shark infested waters. Their struggle to stay alive, avoid the things with the sharp pointy teeth and find a boat to bring them to safety is the focus of the film, but it also explores the way people handle survival situations. A Sundance darling (just like Blair Witch), it has used non-traditional marketing (just like Blair Witch) and low budget cinema-verite (just like... oh, you get the idea).

Nearly everyone who has seen this film has walked away raving about it, which has helped to build the excitement to the point where this low budget ($130,000) film with no stars and no special effects is getting a major release in 2,700 plus theaters. Its $23,000 per screen average on 47 screens can't compare to previous indie darlings, but it's a healthy number that makes it a legitimate wide release. Jumping to 2,700 screens is pretty bold, but with a low budget film, there isn't a huge fall-on-your-face factor, since just about anything would earn them back their money. I don't smell a phenomenon here, but a decent late August hit wouldn't surprise me. Based on the film's performance in limited release, I'm looking for a $16 million weekend.

Another emerging trend is to make a thinly disguised remake of a film without really acknowledging what you're doing, allowing you to use a photocopier on the script but still keeping the illusion of originality. So Point Break becomes The Fast and the Furious, Risky Business becomes The Girl Next Door and now City Slickers becomes Without a Paddle. Three friends played by Seth Green (the uptight one), Matthew Lillard (the carefree one) and Dax Shepard (the, uh, other carefree one) get lost on a wilderness trip and try to find their way back to civilization while learning what's really important, yada, yada, yada... but what matters is, is it funny?

According to the ads, yes, according to critics, hell no. Whereas the recent Harold and Kumar managed some pretty favorable reviews despite (or maybe because of) its stoner-centric comedy, Without a Paddle is making critics wish they had one to discipline the filmmakers. Even so, the ads do a good job of selling the film, even if the slightly homoerotic footer on them is an odd choice for a selling point when your demographic consists of 20-something males. Green and Lillard are quite well known from various roles (Scott Evil and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo respectively) while Shepard comes by way of Punk'd, Ashton Kutcher's attempt to never be taken seriously ever again. None of these comedies have been hitting too large of late, although a key difference here is that Without a Paddle's PG-13 rating means it's able to actually show some of its funny parts in the commercials and in context. However, it will not be able to overcome the general tiredness of the material, leaving it to gross about $14 million this weekend, though that's a pretty decent figure for a film this size.

They're really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, releasing another Benji film. This one is subtitled Off the Leash (apparently, Obey the Scooper Law tested poorly). Director Joe Camp pulled in every favor he had coming to him, apparently, getting this released at the 30th anniversary of the original. These films make up 7/9ths of his career output, so we're obviously not straying far afield from his comfort zone, but is there really an audience for this sort of thing anymore? Has anyone under the age of 20 even heard of him? Benji: Off the Leash! is going to be one of those films you forget even happened by the end of the year (finding itself in the bargain bin with Thunderbirds). Give it about $2 million.

Alien vs. Predator opened to a massive and surprising $38 million, which once upon a time would have made it one of the bigger hits of the year. Such is the shift of focus to the opening weekend that even here you can almost guarantee that the film won't hit $100 million total. Freddy vs. Jason opened to a similar $36 million and finished just over $80 million when all was said and done. Add in that that cross-over film was still better received than AVP (as all the cool kids are calling it) and we are looking at a drop to rival or exceed The Village's precipitous 67%.

The Princess Diaries 2 should fare better, though it still has some of the same problems, being yet another sequel, and an unnecessary one at that. A relatively milder 50% drop should be in store here.

A couple of other films are making wider bows this weekend, most prominently Garden State. The directorial debut of Scrubs's Zach Braff, it is expanding to about 600 theaters after showing strongly in its first few weeks of limited release. With one of truly the best trailers of the year, it's likely to strike a strong chord with art house filmgoers and possibly step beyond that some. Expect a $2.5 million weekend and a continued steady showing.

Napoleon Dynamite continues to be the indie darling of the year, stealthily approaching $20 million despite never reaching the top ten box office. It probably won't do that again this weekend, but the makers of this uber-quirky film would be hard pressed to complain. That it’s gotten this far on basically one week of advertising plus word-of-mouth is a real testament to how well it's hitting its target.