December 2006 Forecast
By David Mumpower
December 1, 2006

Stiller argues philosophy with his intellectual equal.

December is always the most exciting month on the calendar with regards to box office. With so many North Americans flush with vacation-related free time, all of the holiday shopping in the world cannot stand in the way of big business at the local cineplex. Even better, this is the time of year where quality matters the most. If a project starts winning end-of-year awards and creates Oscar buzz, its potential movie-going audience will expand exponentially.

Million Dollar Baby, Sideways and Brokeback Mountain never looked like box office factors, yet somehow the trio of films wound up with roughly $85 million in domestic receipts. Considering that their average opening weekend was $311,000, this is an impressive feat, even for platformers. That's even truer when we factor in that the average budget for the three releases was $20 million. Stating the obvious, awards contention can make or break many of the under-the-radar titles released this month. Keeping that in mind, here are my thoughts on which movies are box office heavyweights.

1) Night at the Museum

Ben Stiller is a deft comedian. He has proven himself capable of either playing the over-the-top villain (Dodgeball), the action movie stereotype (Starsky & Hutch), the idiot savant (Zoolander) and the straight man extraordinaire (There's Something About Mary). No matter what you think of his movies (and there have been about five which I would classify as unforgivably awful), you cannot argue with his track record for success. And even allowing for this, Night at the Museum appears to be (at least on paper) the most shamelessly commercial project he has done thus far. The special effects-laden comedy is one I expect to be his Jumanji. It won't match the $279 million Meet the Fockers pulled in, but Mary's $176 million is in the realm of possibility. In a deep month, that total should be more than enough to win.

2) Apocalypto

Here it is. This is the feast or famine prediction for December. I suspect that if we took a dozen of the box office geniuses at BOP (use the words ironically is so inclined) and placed them in a room, we would see half a dozen say blockbuster and the rest say huge bomb. The only surprise would be someone arguing for a middle-of-the-road performance. Lines are divided here as even the most neutral of analysts feels a need to either praise Gibson for his maverick directorial successes or damn him for his personal failings.

I believe that all of this is valid but I cannot ignore the fact that $370 million worth of movie-goers lined up to watch his last project, The Passion of the Christ. Sure, Jim Caviezel was the star but Mel Gibson was the draw. I cannot reconcile myself with the logic that most of his fans would have vanished after 30 months of Mel being matter how stupid Mel can be. This is not Kramer we are discussing here. Gibson is one of the most successful actor/directors the industry has ever known and I believe his name means something to the casual movie-goer, the very one Hollywood tries to exclude in their research about slumps and evolving consumer behavior. I believe Apocalypto is a $100 million earner...and yes, I feel dirty acknowledging that.

3) Eragon

Me in July of 1996: Dragonheart will do well.
Me in July of 2002: Reign of Fire will do well.
Me in December of 2006: Eragon will do well.

I fall for this every few years. I would argue that the third time is a charm, but I do not blame you for not believing me.

4) Charlotte's Web

2006 has seen almost as many CGI family films as horror titles. At least, it feels that way to consumers. Saturation has clearly set in, and this explains the diminishing returns for what would otherwise be adorable looking projects like....hmm, I can't think of a single under-performing CGI family film that looked good. Do you think there could be a message in that, Hollywood suits? Am I being too subtle here? So, what sets Charlotte's Web apart? Name recognition. That's it. That is what I am banking on being the key to a great opening weekend and a brilliant holdover during the holiday season.

5) Blood Diamond

Fun fact: Leonardo DiCaprio's last three movies (The Departed, The Aviator and Catch Me If You Can) averaged $127 million in domestic receipts while each crossed the $100 million barrier. Is it possible that the pre-teen girls who carried Titanic to historically unmatched box office receipts still carry that secret torch to this day? Do you want to bank against an actor on this much of a hot streak when he performs in a movie that looks this good? Yeah, me neither.

6) The Holiday

Face it, a good chick flick is one of the safest plays in the industry and at no time is this truer than December. There was Cold Mountain, Waiting to Exhale, What Women Want, Stepmom, Maid in Manhattan, You've Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice, Jerry Maguire, and the granddaddy of them all, Titanic. Some of them are good/great movies and others are trash, but the principle holds across the board. All of the movies I mentioned there earned at least $67 million. All of them but Waiting to Exhale went over $90 million. Look at the list again and be honest about how surprising you find this news. In a world where Two Weeks Notice earns $93.3 million, all bets are off for a December chick flick starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet.

7) The Good German

It's George Clooney.

8) The Pursuit of Happyness

It's Will Smith.

9) Rocky Balboa

It's Sylvester Stallone. Wait a minute, that hasn't mattered since New Year's Eve 1989. The 1990s swallowed him like he was a bad combination of hair bands, thin ties and the cast of Fame. Not that there could be a good combination of those things...but I digress. Whereas the presence of A-List actors alone should carry the two awards contenders listed immediately above the latest (and, God willing, last) Rocky flick, this one merits an explanation.

I am old enough to remember a time when the kids in my school were shaking in anticipation over the release of Rocky IV. The presumptive final installment in the Academy Award winning series (and for Best Picture, no less) shattered Thanksgiving holiday box office records at the time, mainly due to its then-timely Cold War story. Times have changed since then. In fact, a Russian and an American recently fought for the Heavyweight Championship of the World (well, one of them), and it didn't even make Pardon the Interruption.

Why, then, are we faced with the production of a sequel to Rocky V, a franchise killer straight out of the Batman and Robin mold? Part of it is because Stallone used to be the biggest box office draw in the world, and he's a smart man as well as a glory hound. He misses the limelight in an era where hotel heiresses, poker players and reality show contestants constantly prove it does not take much to be famous any more.

The rest of it is that he has had 16 years since the Rocky V debacle to suss out what went wrong (hint for Sly: your son, Sage) and try to redeem the series that is his true legacy. Sure, it's a bit sad and somewhat desperate but I admire the fact that is taking the risk and attempting it. Also, shocked as I am to admit it, I think the trailer is great. I am always going to be a sucker for that Rocky Is Ready to Fight music.

10) The Nativity Story

As I also discuss in the weekend forecast, this is the ultimate family film for the season....unless you're Jewish, in which case I recommend Apocalypto. Err, never mind. The point is that a modern re-telling of the Virgin birth is well overdue independent of what your faith may be.

This is, after all, the most famous tale in our society, and New Line's production affords us the opportunity to examine what Christianity means in a way Mr. Gibson might not have accomplished completely due to all that pesky scourging. Whereas his work is a violent tale of sacrifice in the face of torture, this is a genteel exercise in faith, belief and struggle in a society that oftentimes shuns the less fortunate, independent of the age in which we live. The Nativity Story will never be the exciting box office story this holiday season, but it will be a sleeper hit throughout December.