St. Petersburg Times:
Can Casino Royale Succeed
With Craig As Bond?

Forecast for '06: little chance of a blockbuster reign

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

Nobody predicted the box office dive of 2005.

And no one will know how Hollywood responds to that drop in theater attendance
until 2007.

Making and marketing movies is a long-range endeavor. Steven Spielberg can begin
principal photography on a film in July and rush it to theaters by December, as he
did with Munich. But he's a rare exception to the rule that at least a year of
preparation is needed to bring an idea to the screen.

That means Hollywood's 2006 releases were decided months ago, before the
severity of last year's box office decline was clear. So the lineup looks a lot like the
same old thing. Studios will closely observe 2006 revenues - especially in the first
six months - to see if the skid was an aberration or the beginning of a moviegoer
revolt against higher prices and unoriginal material.

With that in mind, the most important movie of early 2006 is Steven Soderbergh's
Bubble, a murder mystery without big-name stars but with a revolutionary release
plan. The production company 2929 Entertainment, owned by entrepreneurs Mark
Cuban and Todd Wagner, will debut Bubble in theaters and on DVD and
pay-per-view television on the same day: Jan. 27.

Cuban and Wagner, seeking to saturate the market, are eliminating the weeks of
waiting for home video that nudge viewers to attend theaters. Megaplex owners
aren't too concerned about potentially losing sales for a small movie such as
Bubble. They're worried that success with this release strategy would inspire others,
perhaps even producers of blockbusters, a term that would be retired as more
people stay home.

That's a grim future hinging upon a worrisome present. On paper, 2006 appears less
suited for box office bonanzas than last year, when a Star Wars sequel, War of the
Worlds, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Batman Begins and King Kong had
studios dreaming of sales records.

The slate looks like a year Hollywood expected to coast through.

This year, only a handful of special effects adventures have presold mass appeal,
and, still, each is a dubious proposition. They'll make money, especially during the
hyped opening weekends. But blockbusters? Maybe not.

Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (June 30) doesn't look as sure-fire after Batman
Begins didn't make a convincing case for updating superheroes. Much depends on
whether newcomer Brandon Routh (rhymes with "south") has more star appeal than
the trailers suggest.

Singer chose that project over directing X-Men 3 (May 26) after guiding the first two
Marvel Comics-inspired films. His replacement, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red
Dragon), isn't in the same league, and third installments of any franchise historically
are disappointing.

Even James Bond doesn't have a clear shot at major success with Casino Royale
(Nov. 17), the 21st official Bond flick (not counting the campy original and Sean
Connery's rogue Never Say Never Again). Hiring Daniel Craig (Munich, Layer Cake)
to replace Pierce Brosnan as Agent 007 has displeased some fans.

And how many fans does Tom Cruise have left after jumping the couch in 2005?
Perhaps not as many as Mission: Impossible III (May 5) needs to ensure a fourth.

Among sequels, only the chance to see Johnny Depp swash-staggering in Pirates of
the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (July 7) is a must. It's difficult to be as excited
about seeing Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 (March 31) and Martin Lawrence in Big
Momma's House 2 (Jan. 27). Not to mention Scary Movie 4 (April 14) and third
installments of The Fast and the Furious (June 16) and The Santa Clause (Nov. 3).

Animated family films are abundant in 2006, with only one sequel, Ice Age 2: The
Meltdown (March 31), and one familiar title, Curious George (Feb. 10), with Will Ferrell
supplying the voice of the Man in the Yellow Hat. Others will attempt to carve out
their share of the plush toy market with penguins (Happy Feet, Nov. 17), raccoons
(Over the Hedge, May 19), rats (Flushed Away, Nov. 3), insects (Ant Bully, Aug. 4) and
monsters (Monster House, July 21).

The race for family audiences will likely be won by the NASCAR-inspired comedy
Cars (June 9), the latest Pixar Animation Studios creation. The studio's track record
with Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles makes Cars one of
the year's can't-miss releases.

Put Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in slick suits on a poster for an
updated Miami Vice (July 28) and you can grease the turnstiles. Capitalizing on
Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's tabloid celebrity with The Break Up (June 2) is
easy. Same goes for Lord of the Rings-style dragon fantasy in Eragon (Dec. 15).
Remake a classic 1972 disaster flick, shorten the title to Poseidon (May 12) and hire
extra help for the concession stand.

Get Tim Allen to play The Shaggy Dog (March 10) and Steve Martin to chase The
Pink Panther (Feb. 10) and, well, somebody will show up.

Capturing the attention of grownups seeking serious fare will be tougher. Ron
Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code (May 19) seems
to be a sure attraction for moviegoers older than 25. After that, it's a mixed bag of
well-meaning dramas and quirky independents that will have a hard time luring
mainstream audiences.

All the King's Men (Dec. 16), originally planned for 2005, is a remake of the 1949 best
picture Academy Award winner. Sean Penn as Willie Stark, a Louisiana demagogue
based on real-life politician Huey Long, leads an all-star cast (Jude Law, Anthony
Hopkins, Kate Winslet, etc.) in one of the year's potential winners.

Hollywood continues its reliance upon literature for respectability with adaptations
of The Devil Wears Prada (June 30), starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway,
Running with Scissors (Sept. 22) and The Painted Veil (Dec. 22) looking like awards
bait. The tobacco industry satire Thank You for Smoking (March 17) and Richard
Price's Freedomland (Feb. 17), with Samuel L. Jackson investigating a child
abduction, look promising.

After lackluster audience response to Rent and The Producers, Hollywood is
probably glad only the Broadway adaptation Dreamgirls (Dec. 22) and Idlewild
(March 10), starring Andre Benjamin and Big Boi from Outkast, are the only musicals
on the slate.

This year also brings chances for famous filmmakers to rebound from their own
slumps. Oliver Stone returns to ruffling feathers with World Trade Center, a Sept. 11
drama tentatively scheduled for August. Spike Lee goes mainstream with the police
thriller Inside Man (March 24), starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jodie
Foster. Kevin Smith goes sequel with Clerks 2: The Passion of the Clerks.

Other directors aren't slumping but still feel they have something to prove. Mel
Gibson takes another risk with Apocalypto, a tale of 16th century colonialism that
uses the Mayan language as The Passion of the Christ used Aramaic and Latin.

Martin Scorsese surrenders his historical interests to revisit mob territory with The
Departed (release date TBA), pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. M.
Night Shyamalan has a lot of grumbling about The Village to overcome with Lady in
the Water (July 21).

Then there are those filmmakers who care only about making their kinds of movies.
Robert Altman practically invented the Hollywood system kissoff and does it again
with A Prairie Home Companion (June 9). Lars von Trier takes another jab at
American history with Manderlay (TBA), while Clint Eastwood celebrates it with the
World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers (TBA).

Two films appear primed for debate on op-ed pages and talking head TV shows. V
for Vendetta (March 17) is written by the Wachowski brothers, creators of the Matrix
trilogy, based on a popular graphic novel. The hero is a terrorist in futuristic
England. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World takes Albert Brooks around the
world to figure out what makes Muslims laugh. It's set for a limited release in
February to gauge response.

But that's what Hollywood will be doing with each 2006 release, comparing costs,
returns and especially ticket sales after the least successful movie year in a
generation. The sweat starts here. Where the buck stops, nobody knows.