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Fall has nowhere to go but up

By Martin A. Grove
Fall focus: With the fall season having gotten off on the wrong foot, the good news is that Hollywood now has nowhere to go but up.

It's hard to believe that all it took to finish first last weekend was $6.7 million and that between them all key films in the marketplace sold just $61.4 million worth of tickets. Nonetheless, looking at the product coming our way in the remaining weeks of September and October, there's good cause for optimism.

Although Paramount's "Dickie Roberts Former Child Star" managed to nab first place last weekend -- with the lowest No. 1 opening since the now defunct Destination Films launched "Eye of the Beholder" to a feeble $5.9 million in late January 2000 -- it's likely to become "Dickie Roberts Former Number One Movie" this weekend as stronger product starts flowing through the pipeline. Here's a look at some of the likely bright spots on the horizon:

"Once Upon A Time In Mexico." Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, director of Dimension Films' three "Spy Kids" films, the R rated action adventure suspense thriller "Mexico" opens Friday. Starring are Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp. Insiders say the violent "Mexico" has been flying high on the Hollywood advance radar screen and should have no trouble kicking "Dickie" out of first place.

"Mexico" is the third episode in Rodriguez's trilogy that began with his debut feature "El Mariachi" in 1993 and continued two years later with it sequel "Desperado." "Mariachi," which had no name stars and was shot on video for about $7,000, took home the audience award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Columbia began its relationship with Rodriguez at that point by picking up the picture. It wound up grossing about $2 million. "Desperado," which starred Banderas and Hayek. was made for about $7 million. It did nearly $26 million domestically. "Mexico," which reportedly cost $30 million to produce, revolves around a drug lord pretending to overthrow the president of Mexico and a corrupt CIA agent who's enlisted to help carry out the plot.

If you're only as good as your last film, Rodriguez is damn good. His last film, "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," grossed nearly $109 million this summer. Clearly that put smiles on exhibitors' faces and, not surprisingly, they're thanking him with an Excellence in Filmmaking Award Oct. 2 at ShowEast in Orlando.

For Depp, who's very hot coming off Disney's blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl," this is his first film to open since his controversial interview with Germany's Stern magazine in which he was quoted as calling America "a dumb puppy" and making a number of other negative comments about the U.S. Subsequently, Depp said through his publicist that his comments were taken "radically out of context" and "there was no anti-American sentiment." The news editor of Stern countered that Depp's quotes were "not taken out of context" and added that, "Stern regrets that Johnny Depp is being criticized for his outspoken remarks in his homeland. Stern stands by its account." Whether moviegoers care one way or another what Johnny Depp's views are about America is anyone's guess. If "Mexico" opens as strong as anticipated, Depp will have nothing to worry about and can do all the political interviews he wants to do in the future.

"Lost in Translation." Focus Features' drama "Translation" from writer-director-producer Sofia Coppola, which begins its limited release Friday and expands Sept. 19, is the fall's first awards worthy movie. I've already reserved a spot for it on my Ten Best List for 2003 and I don't doubt that it will wind up on many other such lists, as well.

"Translation" stars Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi and Coppola has gotten wonderful performances from all of them. Murray, in particular, is likely to emerge as a best actor nominee for Golden Globe and Oscar consideration. Like other small films, "Translation" needs to make sure that Academy members see it. Focus, which did an outstanding Oscar marketing job last year with "The Pianist," can be counted on to do what it takes to make "Translation" a must-see contender. It's already screened it at film festivals in Venice, Toronto and Telluride and has been very well received there.

An indication of how well "Translation" was received in Venice came in a Reuters report filed during the festival which noted that it "became the most talked about movie so far at the Venice Film Festival when it made its debut Sunday. Critics and the public alike were won over by the film." In Venice, "Translation" was up against 18 other films in the so-called "Upstream" competition for more experimental pictures. Johansson was honored with Venice's Upstream Best Actress award. She, Murray, Coppola and the film are all good bets to have a shot at various honors throughout the awards season.

"The Rundown." Universal's action adventure "The Rundown" is generating some of the strongest advance boxoffice buzz of anything in the early fall marketplace. Directed by Peter Berg, it opens Sept. 26. Starring are Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), Seann William Scott and Christopher Walken. There's also a cameo appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger that should wind up getting much more media attention than would have been the case prior to California's gubernatorial recall election. "Rundown" was produced by Kevin Misher, Marc Abraham and Karen Glasser.

In the PG-13 rated "Rundown," Johnson plays a bounty hunter heading to the Amazon in pursuit of someone so as to pay off a debt. Subsequently, the bad guy turns out not to be a bad guy and he and Johnson team up to pursue riches buried deep in a jungle mine. All the elements are there for a good summer-like action hit that promises to liven up the late September boxoffice.

"Mystic River." Clint Eastwood's crime thriller "Mystic River" from Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, NPV Entertainment and Malpaso Productions is being talked about as one of Eastwood's best films in years and a strong candidate for awards consideration. Written by Brian Helgeland -- who's really much better than his last film, "The Order," which he wrote and directed and saw die in sixth place last weekend -- it stars Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney. Produced by Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Hoyt and Eastwood, it was executive produced by Bruce Berman.

"River," which starts flowing in theaters in limited release Oct. 8, is a story about three men, friends since childhood, with a dark interwoven history that forces them to come to terms with a brutal murder in Boston.

"Intolerable Cruelty." Universal's screwball romantic comedy "Intolerable Cruelty" is generating a buzz as both a likely awards contender and a big boxoffice performer. Directed by Joel Coen and produced by Ethan Coen and Brian Grazer, it stars George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton. It was executive produced by James Jacks and Sean Daniel.

Good word of mouth was jump-started at the Venice Film Festival when Universal showed the picture as a work in progress out of competition. With Clooney and Zeta-Jones on hand for the festival there was plenty of media attention for the film about a Beverly Hills battle of the sexes. In a story headlined "Clooney, Zeta-Jones Spark Frenzy in Venice," Reuters reported that "girls screamed and paparazzi jostled for position as the stars pulled up in an elegant wooden boat."

By the time "Cruelty" arrives in theaters Oct. 10, it's a safe bet that it will have extremely high awareness and be on track for big opening numbers. Moreover, with its high profile and top pedigree filmmakers and stars and with its fun storyline, "Cruelty" is likely to do very well in terms of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

"Kill Bill." Miramax has a likely winner in Quentin Tarantino's suspense drama "Kill Bill," the first part of which opens wide Oct. 10. Produced by Lawrence Bender and Tarantino, its high profile cast includes such stars as Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Lucy Liu and Vivica A. Fox. Its screenplay, which Tarantino wrote, revolves around a bride who's shot, presumably dead, at her wedding reception, but awakens five years later from a coma and sets out to seek revenge.

"Bill," which should arrive with an R rating for violence, attracted major media attention when Miramax opted to split it into two separate movies, releasing one now and the other late next February. Driven by media and moviegoer interest in Tarantino, "Bill" stands to make an impact not only at the boxoffice but also in awards from critics groups as well as in the Golden Globe and Oscar races.

"Runaway Jury." The PG-13 suspense thriller "Runaway Jury" from Twentieth Century Fox and New Regency Pictures, is based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham. Directed by Gary Fleder ("Don't Say A Word"), it stars John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Fleder and Christopher Mankiewicz, it was executive produced by Jeffrey Downer.

Driven by moviegoer recognition of Grisham as a brand name in this genre, "Jury" seems a good bet to flex its boxoffice muscles when it arrives in theaters Oct. 17.

"Sylvia." Every year one or two small, independently made dramas emerge as lively contenders for awards consideration. Focus Features' "Sylvia," the story of American poet Sylvia Plath and her turbulent relationship with her husband, British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, promises to do just that this year when it begins in limited release Oct. 17.

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Christine Jeffs, whose debut film "Rain" was acclaimed in the Directors Fortnight at the 2001 Cannes International Film Festival, its screenplay is by John Brownlow. Starring are Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig and Jared Harris. It was produced by Alison Owen, an Oscar nominee for producing "Elizabeth."

Not only are those elements perfect for attracting awards attention, "Sylvia's" ultimately sad story is the sort of tale Academy members often embrace. Students of literature will recall, of course, that Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 by putting her head in her gas oven and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." New Line's R-rated horror film remake "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" isn't likely to resonate with Oscar voters, but that won't make much difference when it hits theaters Oct. 17. Directed by Marcus Nispel and produced by Michael Bay and Michael Fleiss, it stars Jessica Biel and Eric Balfour.

Not that it matters much, but its storyline revolves around a family of cannibals discovered in rural Texas and a crazy brute named Leatherface, who prefers to wear clothing made from human skin. I'm skipping it, to be honest, but I'm not the target audience (and you probably aren't either). Nonetheless, even though it may lack prestige and awards prospects, "Massacre" is a killer brand name that should pump some new blood into the fall boxoffice, however briefly.

"Gothika." If there's such a thing as a high profile, prestigious horror film, "Gothika" from Warner Bros. and Dark Castle Entertainment is it. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz and produced by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis and Susan Levin, it opens Oct. 24. Starring are Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Robert Downey, Jr.

Between its big name stars, its perfect pre-Halloween timing and the smart marketing that Silver always manages to inspire for his productions, "Gothika" sounds like a likely boxoffice winner.

"Scary Movie 3." Horror fans who need more than "Gothika" to satisfy their craving for on-screen chills can also turn to Dimension Films' horror comedy sequel spoof "Scary Movie 3," opening Oct. 24. Directed by David Zucker and produced by Robert K. Weiss, its extensive cast is led by Anna Faris, Charlie Sheen, Denise Richards, Eddie Griffin and Peter Boyle.

The first "Scary Movie" was reportedly made for $19 million and grossed about $157 million in 2000. "Scary Movie 2" reportedly cost $45 million to make, but only grossed about $71 million. Clearly, "Scary Movie 3" is a brand name that should benefit at the boxoffice from very high awareness.

"Alien." Crowded as the Halloween marketplace will be this year with horror genre product, 20th Century Fox has big potential with its Oct. 31 reissue of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror fantasy classic "Alien." Written by Dan O'Bannon, it stars Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt.

"Alien" was reportedly made for only $11 million and grossed about $79 million, a very sizable gross in the late '70s. With its production costs written off decades ago, Fox can't be in for big money on the reissue front today. The film's wide release at a time of year when horror films are more respectable than ever could bring in some substantial boxoffice business. Moreover, it should also help position "Alien" for the full-blown DVD collector's edition treatment that typically is very lucrative on the home entertainment front.

Martin Grove is seen Mondays at 9 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., PT on CNNfn's "The Biz" and is heard weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX 1070 AM in Los Angeles.

Web exclusive: Martin Grove looks at the business of film via conversations with directors and producers. Grove also reports for CNN and KNX-AM Los Angeles. Posted Wednesdays and Fridays.

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