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A Shot at a Comeback

Potential Hollywood blockbusters in the remaining months of this year, including a new James Bond film, could help secure a full-scale box-office rebound for 2006.

September 03, 2006|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Between shaken martinis over the years, James Bond has saved the planet from the evils of Ernst Blofeld, Dr. No and Hugo Drax.

Now, the British secret service agent has a new mission: to secure Hollywood's box-office rebound this year -- a particularly challenging task because there's a new man in the tuxedo.

Hitting theaters in November, "Casino Royale," the 21st Bond film, is considered the front-runner in this year's all-important holiday box-office derby. The movie, the first Bond film since "Die Another Day" in 2002, could help determine whether 2006 is a full-scale comeback year.

"I wouldn't bet against the movie," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of "This franchise has been successful for four decades. The challenge will be to get audiences to go for a blond Bond."

The new Bond, fair-haired Daniel Craig, is replacing Pierce Brosnan.

After a slump last year, movie ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada snapped back this summer, thanks to such blockbusters as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and surprise hits including "The Devil Wears Prada."

But attendance has yet to climb back to its 2002 peak, and the remainder of the year looks shaky compared with the end of last year, when several of 2005's biggest hits were released.

Although last summer kicked off with the flop "Kingdom of Heaven" and never recovered, holiday season results were stellar, fueled by three effects-driven films: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "King Kong."

"My fear is that we don't seem to have a 'Potter' or a 'Kong' or a 'Narnia' out there," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. "I see a ton of quality on the schedule, but not the obvious blockbusters."

But there are some potential mega-hits in addition to "Casino Royale." One is "Happy Feet," an animated penguin musical from Warner Bros. that is going head-to-head against the Bond film from Sony Pictures.

Box-office buzz is potent as well for two December releases: 20th Century Fox's "Night at the Museum," an adventure comedy starring Ben Stiller, and Paramount Pictures' long-awaited musical "Dreamgirls."

By nature, the box office is unpredictable, a fact that gives studio executives ulcers and heartens them as well. "I've been doing this for 39 years, and every year sleeper hits emerge -- films that break out even if they don't look like juggernauts," said Nikki Rocco, Universal Pictures' president of domestic distribution.

This summer's box-office success was driven by 11 movies that topped $100 million each in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada, including the surprisingly strong comedies "The Break-Up" and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." Smaller hits such as the indie darling "Little Miss Sunshine" and the dance romance "Step Up" also emerged unexpectedly.

Revenue at the box office from early May through last weekend totaled $3.7 billion, up 7.1% from 2005, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Year-to-date results are up by about the same percentage, thanks to both higher attendance and higher ticket prices.

Among the major studios, Walt Disney Co. scored the two biggest domestic hits so far this year. Through last weekend, "Pirates" had grossed $407.6 million in the U.S. and Canada, and nearly $1 billion worldwide, while the animated "Cars" hauled in $240.5 million in the U.S. and Canada. Other studios posting robust tallies: Sony Pictures, with "The Da Vinci Code," "Talladega Nights" and "Click," as well as Fox, with "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Prada."

Paramount and Universal had solid summers, but the cost of big-budget releases led to disappointments for both: "Mission: Impossible III" looks like a break-even proposition for Paramount, while Universal's "Miami Vice" is struggling at the box office.

Warner Bros. had a summer to forget: The Man of Steel returned with a modest bang in the costly "Superman Returns," while "Poseidon," "Lady in the Water" and "The Ant Bully" flopped, the latter hurt by saturation in the animation marketplace. "Ant Bully" came out a week after "Monster House" and a week before "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals" as studios competed for family audiences.

After churning out a barrage of remakes and TV adaptations in 2005, including "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Bad News Bears" and "Bewitched," Hollywood studios returned to their dependable staple this year: sequels.

"This year is all about the franchises," Pandya said. "The studios got back to the usual summer diet and audiences followed."

Not surprisingly, the release schedule for summer 2007 is loaded with sequels, most notably May's one-two-three punch of "Spider-Man 3" from Sony, "Shrek the Third" from DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. and Paramount, and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" from Disney.

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