After more or less taking a weekend off, the box office is back in force with this holiday season's best hope for a family blockbuster, as well as one of the stronger December candidates for Oscar hopes.
Weekend Forecast for December 9-11, 2005
By Reagen Sulewski
December 9, 2005
Somewhere, a New Line executive is cursing himself that J.R.R. Tolkien only wrote The Lord of the Rings in three parts. Instead of those films, he could have made the potentially equally lucrative seven films out of the Chronicles of Narnia novels by Tolkien contemporary C.S. Lewis. The first of these is this weekend's headlining film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
In it, four children, moved out into the country for safety during World War II, stumble upon a portal to a magical world called Narnia, filled with talking animals and magical creatures, which is locked into perpetual winter (but never Christmas). It is ruled with great terror by the White Witch, who fears the coming of a talking lion named Aslan (sounds rational, really) that once upon a time ruled the land, but has not been seen for many years. While the witch courts the favor of the children, a great battle between the Witch and Aslan is brewing, with the sides representing, quite literally, good and evil.
While the film is a classic of fantasy and children's writing, its religious and Christian overtones are fairly unmistakable (specifically, it's a plain allegory for Jesus). As such, it has received a tremendous grassroots support from church groups, much in the same manner as The Passion of the Christ did. The controversy and attendant publicity that surrounded The Passion is certainly not here, but then the book series is also enjoyable without getting into that aspect of it. Makers of the film are counting on both segments of this audience, the religious and the fantasy fans, to come out in force.
Directly comparing this to the Lord of the Rings saga (which isn't entirely fair, but bear with me), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rated PG, as opposed to the PG-13 of that trilogy. It's also a good deal shorter, at 140 minutes instead of three hours plus. That gets it down to a Harry Potter-ish running time, which is a length where films can clearly prosper greatly. The series is less well known than Rings and skews younger; however, there's still a great deal of action. Trailers and commercials are impressive but not spectacular, and taking this all together leads me to predict an opening weekend of around $58 million for the film.
Expanding into wide release is Syriana, which is positioning itself as a major Oscar contender. Starring George Clooney, it's his second straight ultra-topical film of the year, following Good Night, and Good Luck. A geo-political thriller about terrorism and oil, Clooney plays a CIA agent assigned to one last case (cue dramatic music) when he discovers a sinister conspiracy that could have global ramifications. Also starring Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer and Jeffrey Wright and directed by Stephen Gaghan (writer of Traffic), it has the ambitions of being an Important Film.
Getting critical raves for its tough subject matter, unflinching view of its message and top-notch performances, Syriana is probably not the feel-good movie of the holidays. And yet, audiences have shown in the past that they are willing to support daring cinema, and Clooney's prestige as an actor and auteur has never been higher. It expands to just over 1,700 screens this weekend, and with its spectacular limited release performances so far, it should easily come in for second place this weekend, with around $15 million.
This means that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire will end its three-week reign at the top of the box office, although it has still earned an impressive $230 million to date. Hopes that it might approach the heights of the first film appear to be dashed at the moment, as it fell under the $20 million mark in its third weekend, or over 60% from the previous comparable period, high even by post-Thanksgiving standards. Look for about $12 million this weekend.
Aeon Flux landed with a huge thud on its opening weekend, coming in at a hair under $13 million, with abysmal reviews and few if any satisfied customers. A nonsensical plot that lacked back story, unexciting action and a schizophrenic look all contributed to its failure. Add to that the tendency for sci-fi films to be front-loaded anyway, and we're looking at a historic collapse. A drop to $5 million isn't out of the question here.
This opens the door for Walk the Line to stick around in the top five for another weekend. Having pocketed around $70 million to date, it was one of the best holdovers of last weekend, falling "only" 50%. It should come in just under $7 million this weekend.
As we approach the end of the year, limited release films start to become more important, with several testing the waters for Oscar consideration. Among this week's are three in that category, including Memoirs of a Geisha, Mrs. Henderson Presents and Brokeback Mountain (the infamous "gay cowboys eating pudding" movie). Of these, Geisha seems to have the most commercial potential, being based on the most familiar material and starring an attractive, decently well-known cast that includes Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh (contractually obligated to be in every Asian-themed film in the United States). These films are all debuting in New York, Los Angeles and selected other locations this weekend, with expansions throughout the holiday season.