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Sight unseen, some likely hits on deck for '05

By Martin A. Grove
Annual analysis: Most years look good on paper before they get underway since Hollywood always fields enough high profile movies to make any year sound promising.

Of course, there's no way to know sight unseen which films will prove to be boxoffice winners. A year ago, for instance, who would have predicted that "The Passion of the Christ" would gross $370 million domestically, nearly matching "Spider-Man 2's" $373 million?

Nonetheless, looking ahead at 2005 suggests there are enough high profile films in the pipeline to keep Hollywood in good spirits. Here's a quick look at 10 prime releases arriving later this year for which there are very high hopes. Opening dates, of course, are based on release schedules now circulating and are always subject to change. In fact, even before '05 arrived there were numerous schedule changes as studios found themselves jockeying for the New Year's best available dates and responding immediately to changes made by other distributors.

1. George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" (Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox): Predicting big boxoffice success for the final "Star Wars" prequel is certainly a no-brainer, so let's start the ball rolling with this one. It's set to open Th., May 19 and isn't facing competition from any other wide releases the weekend of May 21-23. It's the same launch pattern that's worked so well for Lucas in the past. "Episode II - Attack of the Clones" opened May 19, 2002 to $80 million and went on to gross nearly $311 million domestically. "Episode I - The Phantom Menace" arrived May 19, 1999 to nearly $65 million and ended up doing over $431 million.

The "Star Wars" gang is back, of course, including Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christiansen. This story takes place three years after the end of "Episode II" when a massive battle is underway during the last days of the Clone Wars. The gap between the prequels and the original "Star Wars" trilogy is bridged with the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire at the conclusion of the Clone Wars. At this time, the Jedi are scattered, Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and we meet the infants Luke and Leia.

2. Steven Spielberg's "The War of the Worlds" (Paramount and DreamWorks): June 29 will see Paramount launch Spielberg's "War," starring Tom Cruise, in domestic theaters. By then, "Star Wars" will have had nearly six weeks of playing time and moviegoers will be ready for another slice of prime sci-fi. In this case, the source material is H.G. Wells' classic novel about Martians invading the Earth, prompting an intergalactic war that could wipe out the human race.

Here, too, there's every reason to bet on blockbuster success. Between Spielberg, Cruise and Wells' novel, there are three brand names on the table. With its June 29 arrival in theaters, "War" will be positioned to do battle over the July Fourth holiday weekend. This year with July Fourth falling on a Monday, that extended Friday-Monday weekend should be a prime moviegoing period.

"War" won't, however, have the lucrative July Fourth marketplace entirely to itself. Friday, July 1 will see Disney open its animated family film "Chicken Little" while Fox kicks off its sci-fi comic book based action adventure "Fantastic Four." Directed by Tim Story, "Four" stars Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba and Chris Evans and could be a formidable competitor. Its story revolves around four astronauts who develop superpowers when their spaceship's exposed to cosmic rays. The resulting superhumans are Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. Having two high profile sci-fi fantasy adventures opening so close to one another is unusual, but given the expansion in the marketplace that July Fourth typically brings Paramount and Fox may get away with it.

3. Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" (Fox): In recent years Hollywood has made the first weekend in May the summer season's unofficial start. It's great timing for big event films since the preceding four months of the year are typically a blend of bland low profile pictures and fading holdovers from the previous holiday season. By early May moviegoers are ready for something big and exciting.

This pre-summer launch pad has worked effectively in the past for films like Universal's "The Mummy Returns," which kicked off to over $68 million on May 4, 2001, and Columbia's "Spider-Man," which arrived May 5, 2002 to nearly $115 million. Last year Fox staked out May 2 to open "X2: X-Men United," raking in nearly $86 million for the three day non-holiday weekend.

This May 6 Fox is returning for what could be another pre-summer pick-me-up courtesy of "Kingdom of Heaven" from Oscar-winning filmmaker Ridley Scott. "Kingdom" probably isn't the kind of film that will add to Scott's collection of Oscar gold, but it should boost his and Fox's gold holdings. It's an action adventure set during the 12th Century about a young blacksmith who becomes a knight and helps defend Jerusalem during the Crusades. Needless to say, there's a princess and a romance, as well as lots of battle action. Orlando Bloom, who emerged as a teen heartthrob thanks to "Pirates of the Caribbean," stars opposite Liam Neeson and David Thewlis.

"Kingdom" will face some stiff opening weekend competition. Moviegoers starving for a big movie will also be able to choose from Disney's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a sci-fi action adventure based on the classic Douglas Adams novel, directed by Garth Jennings and starring Sam Rockwell, Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel, and from New Line Cinema's romantic comedy "Monster-in-Law," directed by Robert Luketic and starring Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan and Jane Fonda. Between them, the three pre-summer openings should carve up the available audience and do a ton of business.

4. Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" (Warner Bros.): Given Warner Bros.' success over the years with its "Batman" franchise, there's every reason to expect more of the same from the latest episode. This one arrives June 17 in the classic mid-June slot that benefits from schools finally being out across the country and every night now being the equivalent of Saturday night. An indication that Hollywood is anticipating blockbuster business for "Batman Begins" can be seen in the lack of any other wide releases going up against the film that weekend.

"Begins" stars Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Nolan, whose career was launched by his critically acclaimed dark suspense thriller "Memento" in 2000, "Begins" film explores the origins of the Batman legend and how Batman emerged as a force for good in Gotham City.

All four of the previous "Batman" episodes have opened around the same mid-June date as the new film. The original "Batman" arrived June 23, 1989 to $40.5 million and went on to gross over $251 million domestically. "Batman Returns" opened June 19,1992 to nearly $46 million and ended up with almost $163 million. "Batman Forever" got started June 16, 1995 with nearly $53 million and wound up doing $184 million. And "Batman & Robin," the weakest of the bunch, kicked off June 20, 1997 to about $43 million and topped out at over $107 million. With around eight years having elapsed between "Batman" films, Warner has orchestrated a new beginning under Nolan that evokes the tone of the early "Batman" comic books rather than the later films.

5. Michael Bay's "The Island" (DreamWorks): Summer and sci-fi fantasy popcorn films from high profile action directors go hand in hand, which certainly should work in favor of "Island," directed by Michael Bay ("Bad Boys II," "Armageddon") and starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou and Steve Buscemi.

With its July 22 berth, "Island" is now facing a lot less competition than it was a few weeks ago. The good news for DreamWorks came in mid-December when MGM moved back the release of its franchise comedy remake "The Pink Panther" from July 22 to Sept. 23. That move followed Columbia having switched "The Legend of Zorro" from Sept. 23 to Nov. 4, a date that became available when Disney announced it was driving Pixar's animated "Cars" from Nov. 4 to June 9, 2006.

The bottom line for DreamWorks is that "Island" will now be sailing against only one other wide opening. That film is the romantic comedy "The Wedding Crashers" from New Line, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, which means "Island" has the good fortune of having the action audience to itself opening weekend.

"Island's" storyline is set in a utopian mid-21st Century world in which human clones are created in order to provide spare parts for original humans. McGregor and Johansson's characters manage to escape before they're to be "harvested" for parts and are now in a desperate race to survive as the forces that once nurtured them are now out to kill them.

6. Mike Newell's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (Warner Bros.): As franchises go, "Harry Potter" is as classic a success story as any studio could wish for. The first in the series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," opened Nov. 16, 2001 to $90 million-plus and wound up grossing nearly $318 million domestically. It was followed by "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," which arrived Nov. 15, 2002 to over $88 million and ended up with about $262 million. For the third in the series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," Warner opted for a summer release. "Azkaban" kicked off last June 4 to almost $94 million and got to $249.5 million.

For the franchise's fourth episode, "Goblet of Fire," Warner is going back to the series' fall release roots. A Nov. 18 opening will position the "Fire" perfectly in the increasingly lucrative family film holiday season. With somewhat less competition to deal with than in the hot-and-heavy summer and with family fare being precisely what plays best in the pre-Thanksgiving through Christmas weeks, "Fire" should generate some true boxoffice heat.

7. Shawn Levy's "The Pink Panther" (MGM): If I'm counting correctly, MGM's new "Pink Panther" will be the tenth theatrical feature since the series began in 1963 with Blake Edwards' wonderfully inventive comedy starring the incredibly zany Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

In the years since Seller's death in 1980 there have been efforts to breathe new life into the classic series, but they've never quite worked. There was, for instance, Edwards' own attempt to rekindle the flames for MGM with 1993's "Son of the Pink Panther," starring the then very hot Roberto Benigni. In the end, it grossed only about $2.4 million domestically.

This time around success seems much more likely thanks to the inspired casting of Steve Martin as Clouseau. Levy's last film, the family comedy "Cheaper By the Dozen," starring Martin and Bonnie Hunt, opened via Fox to $35 million-plus last Christmas. It wound up grossing nearly $139 million domestically.

"Panther" is now set to tiptoe into theaters Sept. 23, having moved off its original July 22 date when the less competitive September weekend became available thanks to Columbia's revised game plan for "Zorro." With less competition to worry about in September than in the summer -- only "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," an animated comedy from Warner Bros., is sharing Sept. 23 with "Panther" -- and with Martin joining the high profile, wildly marketable "Panther" franchise there should be enough boxoffice green to leave MGM and its new owner Sony in the pink.

8. Martin Campbell's "The Legend of Zorro" (Columbia): Just as Hollywood starts the summer in early May it now starts the holiday season in early November. This year Columbia seized the opportunity to do so with the latest in its western adventure romance "Zorro" franchise, moving it out of late September when Disney's "Cars" sped off to the summer of 2006. The early November slot, which positions "Zorro" in the marketplace pre-Thanksgiving, could give the masked avenger a major career boost.

Columbia's 1998 episode "The Mask of Zorro," directed by Campbell and starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, opened that year in mid-July to $22.5 million. It did nearly $94 million domestically. This time Banderas, Hopkins and Zeta-Jones are back in action again with Campbell still at the helm. What's changed is the climate for franchise films backed by pull-out-all-the-stops marketing. The combination of the brand name "Zorro" with three top stars and countless marketing dollars timed to the start of the '05 holiday season should pay off for Columbia.

9. Peter Jackson's "King Kong" (Universal): After the now legendary success that Jackson achieved with his New Line trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," you'd have to be certifiably loony not to bet the farm on his remake of "King Kong" for Universal. As things now stand, nothing else is going up against "Kong" on Dec. 14 and that's likely to remain the case as we get into the New Year.

Jackson's "Kong" stars Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody in this familiar beauty and the beast story in which a documentary film crew and team of explorers goes searching for a giant gorilla they believe is living in the jungles of Skull Island. What may differentiate this remake from the classic 1933 original is Jackson's focus on events in the film taking place in those perilous jungles filled with prehistoric creatures. As competitive as the '05 holiday season is likely to be, "Kong" looms as a true 800-pound boxoffice gorilla.

10. Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman's "The Producers" (Universal): As powerful a boxoffice force as "Kong" is likely to be next December, there's always room for more as long as you're targeting a different audience. In the case of "The Producers," also from Universal, there's no question that its appeal will be to a very different crowd. Following on the heels of "Kong," it should give Universal a double-barreled holiday success story to celebrate as '05 becomes '06.

Directed by Susan Stroman, who directed the blockbuster Broadway musical, written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, who collaborated on the hit play the film is based on, and starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick who starred in the smash show, how could "The Producers" do anything but succeed? Coming into theaters Dec. 21, it should be the quintessential holiday season hot ticket.

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Copyright 2004 The Hollywood Reporter

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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