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Now showing ... Chapter 1

Studios bank on new stories, many of them fantasies, that could have sequel power.

September 18, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

When Toby Emmerich, president of production at New Line Cinema, watches rough cuts of the fantasy epic "The Golden Compass," he has to use his imagination.

A stuffed green pillow stands in for a golden monkey. A lush landscape will be added digitally to the studio's key holiday-season release.

And when it comes to how the effects-laden production will fare at the box office, he can only hope it comes close to 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," which grossed $315 million domestically and launched a landmark trilogy.

"If we can do a healthy percentage of what 'Lord of the Rings' did, this company will be ecstatic," Emmerich said.

Known quantities fueled a record summer, as name-brand sequels such as "Spider-Man 3" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" pushed overall domestic ticket sales over $4 billion for the first time.

The rest of 2007, however, features only a few major sequels, including "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" from producer Jerry Bruckheimer's hit factory and "Saw IV," the latest in a Halloween tradition for horror fans. Studios are banking instead on unproven commodities, including big-budget fantasy films and potential franchise starters from a mix of genres.

If enough of the fall and holiday season gambles pay off, this year's box-office receipts in the U.S. and Canada could reach a record $10 billion, building on the industry's 2006 rebound.

If "The Golden Compass" -- based on the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy about a young girl's otherworldly adventures -- becomes a hit, New Line will greenlight back-to-back sequels.

Studio executives believe their fantasy films can overcome a glut of titles in the genre partly because they target different audiences. With its young heroine, for example, "The Golden Compass" could play well to females.

The studio, which has stagnated since "The Lord of the Rings" series ended nearly four years ago, needs a blockbuster more than most.

Filmmaker Chris Weitz and his special-effects team are just now finishing the Dec. 7 release, which stars newcomer Dakota Blue Richards along with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Exhibitors who have seen a 12-minute reel of the $180-million production "think it's over the moon," said David Tuckerman, New Line's distribution chief.

Said Hutch Parker, vice chairman of 20th Century Fox, "After the success of 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Harry Potter,' everyone in the movie business started poring over fantasy in a way that hadn't been done for decades. Maybe we all read the same tea leaves."

Fox's "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising" is an adaptation from Susan Cooper's book series about a young man who travels through time to fight evil.

Fox also has "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," starring Natalie Portman as the manager of a magical toy store and Dustin Hoffman as its eccentric, 243-year-old owner.

Walt Disney Co. will woo females with "Enchanted," about a princess whisked to modern-day Manhattan by an evil queen. Starring Amy Adams and Susan Sarandon, the film combines animation and live action.

On Christmas, Sony Pictures will release "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," about a boy who finds a mysterious egg that hatches a sea creature.

The $160-million fantasy "Beowulf," co-produced by Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and Stephen Bing's Shangri-La Entertainment, is not expected to start a franchise.

But director Robert Zemeckis' version of the epic 8th century poem could do wonders for 3-D exhibition and the motion-capture technique he pioneered with "The Polar Express." The film will get the widest 3-D and Imax release ever at a combined 1,100 theaters when it comes out Nov. 16, said Rob Moore, Paramount's president of worldwide marketing and distribution.

A 20-minute reel featuring a digitally rendered Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother impressed observers at this summer's Comic-Con in San Diego. "The movie is so unique and different it's hard to get a handle on how big it will be," Moore said. "The 3-D visuals will blow people away."

Fox has several potential franchises outside the fantasy genre. The action thriller "Hitman," coming Nov. 21, is based on the popular video game and stars Timothy Olyphant as the gun for hire.

"We try never to approach it with the expectation of a sequel," Parker said, "but 'Hitman' is the type of character and journey that has the potential for more than one installment."

Warner Bros. believes its apocalyptic thriller "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith, and its holiday comedy "Fred Claus," with Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti, could spawn sequels, said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution.

A year ago, Smith proved his box-office prowess when his intimate father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" grossed $305 million worldwide.

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