The fall movie season began with a clunk last weekend when the Nicolas Cage thriller "Bangkok Dangerous," the only major release, lured few fans to theaters. Industry box-office revenue was the skimpiest in five years -- since "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" led the charts -- and down compared with last year for the seventh consecutive weekend.
This weekend, Hollywood is banking on a lot of stars, and a few casting twists, to lift the business out of its slump.
Four new releases -- Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys," "Burn After Reading," "Righteous Kill" and "The Women" -- will fight for No. 1 in a race that looks tighter than Sarah Palin's hairdo. None appears to be a smash, but consumer tracking indicates that each has a shot at $12 million or more, so overall sales could perk up on a traditionally slow weekend for moviegoing.
The PG-13-rated "The Family That Preys" stars Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard as matriarchs of two families, one upper crust and the other working class, torn apart by greed and scandal. The drama marks the first picture from Perry, the Atlanta-based media mini-mogul, with white as well as black protagonists.
Perry, who produced the film with Lionsgate for an undisclosed budget, has a loyal following in the African American community, especially among older women. Four of his five previous movies have opened at No. 1 or No. 2.
The question is whether his audience will expand with Oscar-winner Bates as the head of a business empire. Interest in "The Family That Preys" is similar to Perry's Janet Jackson comedy-drama "Why Did I Get Married?" which opened in October 2007 to $21.4 million, although it faces stiffer competition.
If you put a gun to Projector's head, he'd pick "The Family That Preys" to win the weekend with at least $15 million. Then he'd punch you out and call the cops.
The R-rated crime thriller "Righteous Kill" re-teams weathered tough guys Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for the first time since 1995's "Heat." The movie was made by Avi Lerner's Nu Image for about $60 million, and Overture Films acquired North American distribution rights.
"Our hope is that with these two great actors together for the first time in a long time, one plus one equals three," said Peter Adee, Overture's president of marketing and distribution.
Or, as the TV spots put it: "De Niro. Pacino. What else do you need to know?"
This could be the choice for males, though weak reviews (only 19% were positive as of Thursday, according to RottenTomatoes.com) won't help.
The R-rated spy comedy "Burn After Reading," from Focus Features, adds Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton to the Coen brothers' repertory of George Clooney, Frances McDormand et al.
After last year's harrowing "No Country for Old Men," the brothers are back in sly, deadpan mode with this tale of a CIA agent's memoirs falling into the hands of a pair of unscrupulous, clueless gym employees. The Coens urged the actors to "embrace their inner knucklehead" for this portrait of obsessive losers, which was produced for about $37 million.
The film is tracking well with females as well as males, which could make it the choice for adult daters. In most relationships the woman's "vote counts a little bit more," noted David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing at Focus. Projector, as a married man, can reluctantly confirm that.
Female turnout will be the key, of course, for the PG-13-rated relationship comedy "The Women," which Picturehouse hopes will be a mini-version of such girls-night-out hits as "Sex and the City."
Made for $16 million, the remake keeps the gimmick of the catty 1939 original -- an all-female cast. This version stars Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Tracking is strong among females over 25, but reviews have been scathing and Projector's personal focus group offers no encouragement. Mrs. Projector says the story looks like a bit of a downer next to this summer's "chick flicks," and Projector's gay colleague a few cubicles away regrets catching a screening.
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Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys," the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading," the crime thriller "Righteous Kill" and the comedy "The Women" will compete for No. 1 at the box office. Along with the films listed below, contenders to make the top 10 include "Death Race" and "Babylon A.D." These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue weekend estimates Sunday and results Monday.
*--* Movie 3-day Through the Weeks prediction (studio) (millions) weekend
1 The Family That Preys (Lionsgate) $16.1 $16.1 1
2 Burn After Reading (Focus) 14.2 14.2 1
3 Righteous Kill (Overture) 12.8 12.8 1
4 The Women (Picturehouse) 10.8 10.8 1
5 Tropic Thunder 4.6 103.4 5 (DreamWorks/Paramount)
6 The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) 3.7 517.3 9
7 Bangkok Dangerous (Lionsgate) 3.6 13.8 2
8 The House Bunny (Sony) 3.4 41.2 4
9 Traitor (Overture) 2.5 21.1 3
10 Mamma Mia! (Universal) 2.0 139.5 9 *--*
Source: Times research
Los Angeles Times