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LA Times tips `Casino Royale` for box-office supremacy

03-Sep-2006 • Casino Royale

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

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 BoxOfficeGuru.com. "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.

Overseas markets also have become crucial to Hollywood, as the results for the summer's action movies showed. New multiplexes and higher ticket prices have turned countries such as South Korea into major sources of revenue.

Powered by strong sales in Europe, Asia and Latin America, the latest "Pirates" could soon become the third movie ever to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, after "Titantic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." More than half of its gross has come from outside the U.S. and Canada.

"The Da Vinci Code," "Mission: Impossible III" and "Poseidon" all did about 65% to 70% of their business overseas. With their emphasis on visuals, action movies typically translate better abroad than comedies or serious dramas. "Da Vinci" grossed $752.1 million worldwide this summer, second to "Pirates."

But not every Hollywood picture caught on as expected overseas.

"Cars" is on pace to gross more than $200 million outside the U.S. and Canada, but some analysts have called it a disappointment internationally, saying the subject might have been too American for foreign tastes. As a result, "Cars" is expected to end up with a global gross of about $450 million, making it one of the year's biggest winners but only fifth-best among Pixar Animation's seven movies to date.

The Internet became a major marketing force this summer, even though New Line Cinema's "Snakes on a Plane" failed to generate sales that matched pre-release hype fueled by bloggers. Studios now routinely use MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo and other websites to lure young crowds.

The modestly budgeted successes "Step Up," "Clerks II" and "John Tucker Must Die" all benefited from online campaigns featuring music videos, extended trailers or other extras.

For "Clerks II," director Kevin Smith aired vignettes from the $5-million Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Weinstein Co. production on YouTube.com nine months before the release. And the first 10,000 fans who linked to the movie's MySpace.com page got their names at the end of the film's credits, which helped the crude comedy connect with its niche audience and gross $24 million to date.

"This was one of the few movies you could open to $10 million and be doing cartwheels," said Gary Faber, Weinstein's marketing chief.

At the major studios, "frat pack" comedy stars flexed their box-office muscles: Will Ferrell and Jack Black reached new heights with "Talladega Nights" and "Nacho Libre," respectively; Adam Sandler clicked as usual in "Click"; and Vince Vaughn took a slightly serious turn in "The Break-Up." Owen Wilson met more modest success with "You, Me and Dupree."

Critics took it on the collective chin as some of the heaviest crowds turned up for the worst-reviewed movies — or those that weren't screened at all for the press — a trend that could continue this month and next.

Several of the early fall's best box-office prospects, analysts and studio executives say, are genre movies aimed at audiences that ignore reviews. The trailer for the outrageous comedy "Jackass: Number Two," which Paramount plans to release Sept. 22, gleefully mocks the critics who pilloried its predecessor.

October brings the usual string of supposedly critic-proof horror flicks, in this case three franchise entries: New Line's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," Sony's "The Grudge 2" and Lions Gate's "Saw III." Then, in early November, comes Fox's politically incorrect comedy "Borat," an early favorite among online film geeks.

Reviewers are sure to show renewed sway starting in October, when many of the serious, awards-season films hit the calendar.

Among the films that could flourish if critics back them: Warner's "The Departed," New Line's "Little Children," Paramount's "Flags of Our Fathers," Disney's "The Prestige" and Paramount Classics' "Babel."

"Summer movies are about pure entertainment, but soon the critics will enter their most important time of the year," BoxOfficeGuru.com's Pandya said. "When you have 50 of these serious films, you need someone to tell you which are the really good ones."

Thanks to `Dog Bond` for the alert.

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