Segue into holidays
Fall box office picks likely to be some of year's best.

By Greg Hernandez
Staff Writer

With the summer blockbusters fading to black, box office revenue is expected to take a dip during the fall season, but the next two months are still crowded with studio releases featuring major stars vying to become breakout hits.

Last year, both the comedy "Sweet Home Alabama" and the horror film "The Ring" became $100 million-plus grossers, proving that September and October can be fertile ground for films that manage to connect with audiences.

"The fall represents an opportunity for the studios to segue between summer and the holiday period with some different-style movies without competing head-on with the more typical blockbusters," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. "This time of year is when it's more about the movie and the art of filmmaking and less about the box office expectations."

Among this year's fall crop are Woody Allen's latest offering, "Anything Else," the thriller "Cold Creek Manor" starring Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid, and the dark comedy "Duplex" with Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore.

"We get more serious and quirky fare, movies that don't scream 'Event!"' said Brandon Gray, president of Boxofficeguru.com. "It's obviously a lower-grossing period with the start of fall TV season and kids returning to school so there are a lot of things going on that divert people's attention."

Some big names are headlining a number of pictures that analysts feel could break out including Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas in "Once Upon A Time In Mexico," George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Coen Brothers' romantic comedy "Intolerable Cruelty," Diane Lane in the romance-drama "Under the Tuscan Sun," and Denzel Washington in the drama "Out of Time."

Also being touted as a potential moneymaker is "The Runaway Jury," based on the John Grisham thriller of the same name starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman.

"Even people who don't like Grisham novels liked 'The Runaway Jury' and the trailer is really compelling," said Reagan Sulewski, an analyst with Box Office Prophets.

Sulewski is also bullish on the prospects for the remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," especially in light of the success of the summer slasher flick "Freddy vs. Jason."

"It has the name value and is going to get the biggest promotion," Sulewski said. "It's not some generic slasher teen film. It could be really big."

Gray believes star wattage of Clooney and Zeta-Jones alone will make "Intolerable Cruelty" at least a mid-level hit and believes such light-hearted fare as "The Fighting Temptations" with Cuba Gooding Jr. and "The School of Rock" starring Jack Black also have breakout potential.

The fall season will begin in earnest Sept. 12 with the Nicolas Cage action picture "Matchstick Men" facing off against the horror film "Cabin Fever" and "Mexico," which also stars Salma Hayek.

Five wide releases crowd into multiplexes the Sept. 19 weekend: "The Fighting Temptations," "Underworld," "Cold Creek Manor," "Second Hand Lions" and "Anything Else."

This array of releases will put an end to several weeks of studio leftovers which in recent weekends has included such forgettable fare as "The Boss' Daughter," "Marci X" and "The Medallion." This weekend, the only wide releases are "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" and "The Order." Not much is expected of either film.

Come the winter holidays, such a sparse weekend schedule will be unthinkable. By November, blockbusters will begin to return in force with the third movies in the "Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogies, the Mike Myers comedy "The Cat in the Hat" and mega-stars Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe starring in "The Last Samurai" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," respectively.

Said Dergarabedian: "In November and December, it starts looking more like summer again."

Greg Hernandez, (818) 713-3758 greg.hernandez@dailynews.com