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AT THE MOVIES / WORD OF MOUTH

Shuffle may spoil 'Wilson' holiday

December 06, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

People are forever rearranging holiday plans -- a Christmas party here, dinner with the folks there -- but it's unusual for a movie studio to do the same thing with a high-profile film, particularly just three weeks before its debut.

Last Wednesday, Universal Studios switched "Charlie Wilson's War" from Tuesday, Dec. 25, to Friday, Dec. 21, saying it hoped to cash in on the film's "enthusiastic word-of-mouth" by giving it more playing time during the holiday season. But in moving the film's release date up by just four days, Universal runs the risk of having its Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts movie open as low as fifth place on the box-office charts, a development that could eventually cost "Charlie Wilson's War" the biggest and best auditoriums at the multiplex.

Led by the debut of "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and the second weekend of Will Smith's post-apocalyptic drama "I Am Legend," the Dec. 21 weekend will be insanely competitive. The best-testing movie in producer Jerry Bruckheimer's career, the "National Treasure" sequel should outperform the 2004 original, which opened to $35.1 million, grossing more than $173 million overall.

That's not all "Charlie Wilson" is up against. Also opening Dec. 21 is "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical; the Hilary Swank-Gerard Butler tear-jerker "P.S. I Love You"; and the musical biography spoof "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story."

In addition to showing remarkably broad early enthusiasm for "National Treasure," audience tracking surveys reveal that the R-rated "Sweeney Todd" holds surprisingly strong appeal for young women, thanks largely to star Johnny Depp. Since older females (who are typically shopping for and wrapping presents the weekend before Christmas) usually wait until Dec. 25 to flood theaters, that makes the selling of "Charlie Wilson" and "Walk Hard" all the more difficult, as women over age 25 are a big part of each film's prospective audience.

Universal believes "Charlie Wilson" has been unfairly lumped into news stories about much darker (and unsuccessful) conflict films: "In the Valley of Elah," "Rendition," "Lions for Lambs." But the fact is, the film about a hard-living congressman's campaign to help Afghans repel Soviet invaders does indeed have "war" in its title, and as much as Universal has tried to pitch it as a comedy, the movie includes graphic images of combat. That said, "Charlie Wilson" screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "A Few Good Men") has rarely struggled with making politics popular, even fun.

Universal feels the movie can play through the Christmas break and into the new year, even if it's never in first place on the box-office charts. And although "Sweeney Todd" has distinctly higher audience interest than "Charlie Wilson," Universal knows that softly tracking adult-oriented dramas such as "The Aviator," "Gangs of New York" and "Cold Mountain" turned out just fine.

Unlike "Charlie Wilson" (and any other movie in wide release around Christmas), "Walk Hard" is a flat-out comedy, filled with sharply written songs and hilarious sight gags. But the movies "Walk Hard" is spoofing -- "Walk the Line," "Ray"-- appeal to adults, while the core audience for movie spoofs -- "Scary Movie"-- is teens.

So rather than promote "Walk Hard" as a spoof, Sony is hawking its movie as both an outrageous character comedy, much as it did with last year's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," and as the latest work from writer-producer Judd Apatow, whose hits include "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad."

To support the character comedy campaign, Sony is sending "Walk Hard" star John C. Reilly on a national Dewey Cox concert tour; video from his one-hour West Hollywood gig Monday night quickly turned into an Internet hit. International trailers for the film ( www.sonypictures.co.uk/movies/walkhard /trailer.html) offer a peek into director Jake Kasdan's bawdy comic sensibilities.

With so many adaptations and sequels in theaters, "Walk Hard" also should benefit from being completely original. In the past, early audience surveys for Apatow's other films were never that impressive, and yet almost everything he's touched has been a giant hit. Sony hopes his streak will continue with "Walk Hard."

john.horn@latimes.com

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