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Forecast for '06: little chance of a blockbuster reign

By STEVE PERSALL
Published January 6, 2006


Nobody predicted the box office dive of 2005.

And no one will know how Hollywood responds to that drop in theater attendance until 2007.

Making and marketing movies is a long-range endeavor. Steven Spielberg can begin principal photography on a film in July and rush it to theaters by December, as he did with Munich. But he's a rare exception to the rule that at least a year of preparation is needed to bring an idea to the screen.

That means Hollywood's 2006 releases were decided months ago, before the severity of last year's box office decline was clear. So the lineup looks a lot like the same old thing. Studios will closely observe 2006 revenues - especially in the first six months - to see if the skid was an aberration or the beginning of a moviegoer revolt against higher prices and unoriginal material.

With that in mind, the most important movie of early 2006 is Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, a murder mystery without big-name stars but with a revolutionary release plan. The production company 2929 Entertainment, owned by entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, will debut Bubble in theaters and on DVD and pay-per-view television on the same day: Jan. 27.

Cuban and Wagner, seeking to saturate the market, are eliminating the weeks of waiting for home video that nudge viewers to attend theaters. Megaplex owners aren't too concerned about potentially losing sales for a small movie such as Bubble. They're worried that success with this release strategy would inspire others, perhaps even producers of blockbusters, a term that would be retired as more people stay home.

That's a grim future hinging upon a worrisome present. On paper, 2006 appears less suited for box office bonanzas than last year, when a Star Wars sequel, War of the Worlds, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Batman Begins and King Kong had studios dreaming of sales records.

The slate looks like a year Hollywood expected to coast through.

This year, only a handful of special effects adventures have presold mass appeal, and, still, each is a dubious proposition. They'll make money, especially during the hyped opening weekends. But blockbusters? Maybe not.

Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (June 30) doesn't look as sure-fire after Batman Begins didn't make a convincing case for updating superheroes. Much depends on whether newcomer Brandon Routh (rhymes with "south") has more star appeal than the trailers suggest.

Singer chose that project over directing X-Men 3 (May 26) after guiding the first two Marvel Comics-inspired films. His replacement, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon), isn't in the same league, and third installments of any franchise historically are disappointing.

Even James Bond doesn't have a clear shot at major success with Casino Royale (Nov. 17), the 21st official Bond flick (not counting the campy original and Sean Connery's rogue Never Say Never Again). Hiring Daniel Craig (Munich, Layer Cake) to replace Pierce Brosnan as Agent 007 has displeased some fans.

And how many fans does Tom Cruise have left after jumping the couch in 2005? Perhaps not as many as Mission: Impossible III (May 5) needs to ensure a fourth.

Among sequels, only the chance to see Johnny Depp swash-staggering in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (July 7) is a must. It's difficult to be as excited about seeing Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 (March 31) and Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House 2 (Jan. 27). Not to mention Scary Movie 4 (April 14) and third installments of The Fast and the Furious (June 16) and The Santa Clause (Nov. 3).

Animated family films are abundant in 2006, with only one sequel, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (March 31), and one familiar title, Curious George (Feb. 10), with Will Ferrell supplying the voice of the Man in the Yellow Hat. Others will attempt to carve out their share of the plush toy market with penguins (Happy Feet, Nov. 17), raccoons (Over the Hedge, May 19), rats (Flushed Away, Nov. 3), insects (Ant Bully, Aug. 4) and monsters (Monster House, July 21).

The race for family audiences will likely be won by the NASCAR-inspired comedy Cars (June 9), the latest Pixar Animation Studios creation. The studio's track record with Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles makes Cars one of the year's can't-miss releases.

Put Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in slick suits on a poster for an updated Miami Vice (July 28) and you can grease the turnstiles. Capitalizing on Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's tabloid celebrity with The Break Up (June 2) is easy. Same goes for Lord of the Rings-style dragon fantasy in Eragon (Dec. 15). Remake a classic 1972 disaster flick, shorten the title to Poseidon (May 12) and hire extra help for the concession stand.

Get Tim Allen to play The Shaggy Dog (March 10) and Steve Martin to chase The Pink Panther (Feb. 10) and, well, somebody will show up.

Capturing the attention of grownups seeking serious fare will be tougher. Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code (May 19) seems to be a sure attraction for moviegoers older than 25. After that, it's a mixed bag of well-meaning dramas and quirky independents that will have a hard time luring mainstream audiences.

All the King's Men (Dec. 16), originally planned for 2005, is a remake of the 1949 best picture Academy Award winner. Sean Penn as Willie Stark, a Louisiana demagogue based on real-life politician Huey Long, leads an all-star cast (Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, etc.) in one of the year's potential winners.

Hollywood continues its reliance upon literature for respectability with adaptations of The Devil Wears Prada (June 30), starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, Running with Scissors (Sept. 22) and The Painted Veil (Dec. 22) looking like awards bait. The tobacco industry satire Thank You for Smoking (March 17) and Richard Price's Freedomland (Feb. 17), with Samuel L. Jackson investigating a child abduction, look promising.

After lackluster audience response to Rent and The Producers, Hollywood is probably glad only the Broadway adaptation Dreamgirls (Dec. 22) and Idlewild (March 10), starring Andre Benjamin and Big Boi from Outkast, are the only musicals on the slate.

This year also brings chances for famous filmmakers to rebound from their own slumps. Oliver Stone returns to ruffling feathers with World Trade Center, a Sept. 11 drama tentatively scheduled for August. Spike Lee goes mainstream with the police thriller Inside Man (March 24), starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster. Kevin Smith goes sequel with Clerks 2: The Passion of the Clerks.

Other directors aren't slumping but still feel they have something to prove. Mel Gibson takes another risk with Apocalypto, a tale of 16th century colonialism that uses the Mayan language as The Passion of the Christ used Aramaic and Latin. Martin Scorsese surrenders his historical interests to revisit mob territory with The Departed (release date TBA), pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. M. Night Shyamalan has a lot of grumbling about The Village to overcome with Lady in the Water (July 21).

Then there are those filmmakers who care only about making their kinds of movies. Robert Altman practically invented the Hollywood system kissoff and does it again with A Prairie Home Companion (June 9). Lars von Trier takes another jab at American history with Manderlay (TBA), while Clint Eastwood celebrates it with the World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers (TBA).

Two films appear primed for debate on op-ed pages and talking head TV shows. V for Vendetta (March 17) is written by the Wachowski brothers, creators of the Matrix trilogy, based on a popular graphic novel. The hero is a terrorist in futuristic England. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World takes Albert Brooks around the world to figure out what makes Muslims laugh. It's set for a limited release in February to gauge response.

But that's what Hollywood will be doing with each 2006 release, comparing costs, returns and especially ticket sales after the least successful movie year in a generation. The sweat starts here. Where the buck stops, nobody knows.

- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 5, 2006, 09:12:03]


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