Hollywood's Holiday Headache

The movie industry can't afford another poor season, but without an obvious blockbuster, it may be in for a rough spell

Paul Dergarabedian is one of the smartest film sniffers in Hollywood. Dergarabedian runs Exhibitor Relations Co., the industry's preeminent box office tracking firm. He screens most upcoming films and hears just about everything about what's likely to be a hit. So just before Thanksgiving, I asked him, "What's the buzz for the hottest films for this holiday season?"

A long pause. Then he starts to rattle them off: There's Columbia Pictures' (SNE) new James Bond flick, Casino Royale, the animated Happy Feet (both of which opened on Nov. 17 to numbers that were strong, but still trailed last year's holiday season liftoff). He figures the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum is a likely hit, and maybe the animated film Charlotte's Web, from Paramount (VIA).

But then Dergarabedian stops, regroups, and allows that "there are a lot of movies, but no obvious blockbusters out there." And the hot buzz? "I'm not hearing too much of it," he admits.

Thanksgiving Blues

Neither am I. And that's a huge problem for Hollywood, which counts on the Thanksgiving to New Year's period for roughly 22% of its overall box office business. As of now, the current holiday season looks as if it could be far more coal than bonanza, just what the industry can least afford right now. The box office is up about 5%, after last year's 6% decline, putting it about where it was two years ago. Take out ticket inflation, and the numbers of tickets sold is up by about 4% from last year, a rate that would put it about where ticket sales were in 2001, according to figures from the Motion Picture Association of America.

Simply put, boys and girls, Hollywood is still in a bunch of trouble, despite some strong numbers so far from James Bond and some tap-dancing penguins. So what's wrong? For starters, beyond 007, there aren't any installments of mega-franchises out there. No movies from franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia that have leapt to the screen from the pages of bestselling books.

That means Hollywood has to come up with something original, and, well, that's not exactly Hollywood's strong suit. So they're trotting out a 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone for Rocky Balboa, the first Rocky movie since 1990's Rocky V, a film that did only $41 million at the box office.

Warner Bros. (TWX) is putting out Unaccompanied Minors, about six kids stranded in an airport for Christmas. That looks a lot like Home Alone to me. And Paramount gives us the live action version of Charlotte's Web, despite a well-made animated version that's already sitting on every kid's video shelf. And where are the big stars this year? Where's Tom Hanks? How about a good Steven Spielberg flick? Heck, just give us one Pixar (DIS) cartoon.

Focusing on Summer

Fact is, for reasons that escape me, Hollywood seems to have taken a holiday this Christmas. Instead, they seem to be loading up on flicks for the summer—where a heck of a roadblock awaits them. The next installments in the Shrek, Harry Potter, and Spider-Man series—and even The Simpsons movie—are scheduled for summer 2007. "In summer, it's Saturday night every night of the week," says Revolution studio partner and former Fox Distribution Chief Tom Sherak.

Sherak is betting that that Rocky Balboa, which Revolution is producing and MGM is releasing, will make a dent this Christmas. And Walt Disney snuck in a winner with Denzel Washington and his time-traveling thriller Deja Vu, which opened strongly with $20.8 million. But according to box office analysts at Box Office Mojo, the movie "packed less punch" than prior Thanksgiving flicks from director Tony Scott, such as Enemy of the State in 1998.

That's not to say there's a shortage of movies this season. It's just that brand names and marketing buzz are in short supply, says BrandIntel's Michael Corintine, the lead market analyst. BrandIntel measures market buzz for companies by trolling and analyzing online blog, community, and other kinds of traffic. Fox's Eragon, a big-budget wannabe Lord of the Rings written by a 19-year-old Montana kid? Zilch, says Corintine. Same for Apocalypto, the Mel Gibson-directed Aztec action flick that was moved from summer to take advantage of the Christmas lull.

Slow Ticket Sales

Last weekend, a few buzz-free flicks failed to hit the ground running. The Weinstein Brothers' flick Bobby flopped, says Box Office Mojo, and the Danny DeVito-Matthew Broderick flick Deck the Halls from Fox (NWS) grossed an estimated $12 million, trailing last year's weak sister Yours, Mine and Ours. (And wasn't that DeVito and Broderick I saw this morning on The Today Show, giving out toys and working the line, trying to gin up some late, late buzz?)

Still, Dergarabedian, an optimist if I ever met one, figures Hollywood has a few other hits flying under the radar. He thinks Warner Bros. will hit pay dirt with We Are Marshall, which chronicles a university football team after most of its players die in a plane crash. Dergarabedian also predicts big things for Dreamgirls, the Paramount flick based on the Broadway show.

What's got Dergarabedian so optimistic? He believes that "quality will win out. Moviegoers will come to the theaters when there is a quality movie for them to see." He may be right. But if I'm a movie mogul lunching at The Grill, I'd just as soon have a big helping of buzz instead.

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