Now showing ... Chapter 1

Times Staff Writer

When Toby Emmerich, president of production at New Line Cinema, watches rough cuts of the fantasy epic "The Golden Compass," he has to use his imagination.

A stuffed green pillow stands in for a golden monkey. A lush landscape will be added digitally to the studio's key holiday-season release.

And when it comes to how the effects-laden production will fare at the box office, he can only hope it comes close to 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," which grossed $315 million domestically and launched a landmark trilogy.

"If we can do a healthy percentage of what 'Lord of the Rings' did, this company will be ecstatic," Emmerich said.

Known quantities fueled a record summer, as name-brand sequels such as "Spider-Man 3" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" pushed overall domestic ticket sales over $4 billion for the first time.

The rest of 2007, however, features only a few major sequels, including "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" from producer Jerry Bruckheimer's hit factory and "Saw IV," the latest in a Halloween tradition for horror fans. Studios are banking instead on unproven commodities, including big-budget fantasy films and potential franchise starters from a mix of genres.

If enough of the fall and holiday season gambles pay off, this year's box-office receipts in the U.S. and Canada could reach a record $10 billion, building on the industry's 2006 rebound.

If "The Golden Compass" -- based on the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy about a young girl's otherworldly adventures -- becomes a hit, New Line will greenlight back-to-back sequels.

Studio executives believe their fantasy films can overcome a glut of titles in the genre partly because they target different audiences. With its young heroine, for example, "The Golden Compass" could play well to females.

The studio, which has stagnated since "The Lord of the Rings" series ended nearly four years ago, needs a blockbuster more than most.

Filmmaker Chris Weitz and his special-effects team are just now finishing the Dec. 7 release, which stars newcomer Dakota Blue Richards along with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Exhibitors who have seen a 12-minute reel of the $180-million production "think it's over the moon," said David Tuckerman, New Line's distribution chief.

Said Hutch Parker, vice chairman of 20th Century Fox, "After the success of 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Harry Potter,' everyone in the movie business started poring over fantasy in a way that hadn't been done for decades. Maybe we all read the same tea leaves."

Fox's "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising" is an adaptation from Susan Cooper's book series about a young man who travels through time to fight evil.

Fox also has "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," starring Natalie Portman as the manager of a magical toy store and Dustin Hoffman as its eccentric, 243-year-old owner.

Walt Disney Co. will woo females with "Enchanted," about a princess whisked to modern-day Manhattan by an evil queen. Starring Amy Adams and Susan Sarandon, the film combines animation and live action.

On Christmas, Sony Pictures will release "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," about a boy who finds a mysterious egg that hatches a sea creature.

The $160-million fantasy "Beowulf," co-produced by Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and Stephen Bing's Shangri-La Entertainment, is not expected to start a franchise.

But director Robert Zemeckis' version of the epic 8th century poem could do wonders for 3-D exhibition and the motion-capture technique he pioneered with "The Polar Express." The film will get the widest 3-D and Imax release ever at a combined 1,100 theaters when it comes out Nov. 16, said Rob Moore, Paramount's president of worldwide marketing and distribution.

A 20-minute reel featuring a digitally rendered Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother impressed observers at this summer's Comic-Con in San Diego. "The movie is so unique and different it's hard to get a handle on how big it will be," Moore said. "The 3-D visuals will blow people away."

Fox has several potential franchises outside the fantasy genre. The action thriller "Hitman," coming Nov. 21, is based on the popular video game and stars Timothy Olyphant as the gun for hire.

"We try never to approach it with the expectation of a sequel," Parker said, "but 'Hitman' is the type of character and journey that has the potential for more than one installment."

Warner Bros. believes its apocalyptic thriller "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith, and its holiday comedy "Fred Claus," with Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti, could spawn sequels, said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution.

A year ago, Smith proved his box-office prowess when his intimate father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" grossed $305 million worldwide.

Lions Gate Films, whose biggest moneymaker is the gruesome "Saw" series, hopes to launch a family franchise with its Nov. 30 release, "Thomas Kinkade's The Christmas Cottage." The holiday drama recounts how Kinkade, the self-described "Painter of Light," became inspired to pursue an art career.

Art critics who deride Kinkade's genteel, mass-marketed prints as saccharine kitsch will cringe if the film is a hit. But talk about a built-in audience: Kinkade's company and its licensing partners have sold more than $4 billion worth of artwork, teddy bears and other items over the last 15 years.

Studios aren't pinning their hopes solely on fantasy and franchise fare.

The Farrelly brothers' comedy "The Heartbreak Kid," starring Ben Stiller, is shaping up as one of the fall's likeliest $100-million hits. The R-rated remake of the 1972 classic, coming Oct. 5 from Paramount's DreamWorks, is generating potent buzz and comes on the heels of several raunchy comedy hits.

The biggest draw of Sony's musical biopic spoof "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," coming Dec. 21, may be producer and co-writer Judd Apatow, whose resume includes "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad."

"Nobody is hotter right now," said Jeff Blake, Sony's president of worldwide marketing and distribution.

Two disparate films coming out Nov. 2 also could be hits.

Jerry Seinfeld's computer-animated "Bee Movie," from DreamWorks Animation SKG and distributor Paramount, is aimed at parents as well as children, as was this summer's "Ratatouille."

"Seinfeld brings a sophisticated style of humor, but kids will have fun with the more playful comedy and the visuals," said Paramount's Moore.

Director Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," a gritty crime drama set in late-1970s New York, stars Denzel Washington as a real-life drug lord and Russell Crowe as a cop trying to take him down. Early word is strong and, according to distributor Universal Pictures, preview audiences are enthusiastic.

Studios have high hopes for star vehicles late in the year.

Nicolas Cage reprises his adventurer role in Disney's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," a follow-up to 2004's surprise hit.

Johnny Depp, who went from art-house darling to multiplex favorite as a pirate, headlines "Sweeney Todd," director Tim Burton's take on the macabre musical, from DreamWorks and Warner Bros.

Director Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List," a comedy-drama with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as cancer patients who hit the road with a list of wild things to do before they kick the bucket, will get a gradual release from Warner Bros. aimed at building word of mouth.

Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in "Charlie Wilson's War," due Christmas Day from Universal. Mike Nichols directed the political espionage drama, based on a true story from the end of the Cold War era.

Award contenders could make a mark at the box office if they live up to their advance buzz.

Sony hopes its Oct. 12 release "We Own the Night," a crime thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall, can echo last fall's hit "The Departed."

Disney's specialty arm Miramax has two crime dramas generating positive talk. "Gone Gaby Gone," starring Casey Affleck and directed by his brother, Ben, comes Oct. 19, and the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," with Tommy Lee Jones, will be released Nov. 9.

Another upscale contender is the British romance "Atonement," starring Keira Knightley and coming Dec. 7 from Universal's Focus Features.

One genre that might impress critics but face an uphill fight at the box office is geopolitics.

Films including the current "In the Valley of Elah" and the upcoming "Grace Is Gone" explore aspects of the Iraq war. Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs" focuses on conflicts in Afghanistan. Universal is quick to label its Sept. 28 release "The Kingdom," starring Jamie Foxx, a smart, pulse-pounding drama that happens to unfold in the Middle East.

"This is a pure action thriller," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution.

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josh.friedman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Franchise potential?

Several upcoming films could launch franchises if they are big-enough hits. Among the possibilities, listed by release date:

The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising

Release date: Oct. 5

Genre: Fantasy

Stars: Christopher Eccleston, Ian McShane, Gregory Smith

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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Fred Claus

Release date: Nov. 9

Genre: Comedy

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey

Studio: Warner Bros.

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Hitman

Release date: Nov. 21

Genre: Action

Stars: Timothy Olyphant

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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Thomas Kinkade's The Christmas Cottage

Release date: Nov. 30

Genre: Drama

Stars: Peter O'Toole, Marcia Gay Harden, Jared Padalecki

Studio: Lions Gate

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The Golden Compass

Release date: Dec. 7

Genre: Fantasy

Stars: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig

Studio: New Line

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I Am Legend

Release date: Dec. 14

Genre: Science fiction/horror

Stars: Will Smith

Studio: Warner Bros.

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Source: Times research

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