Hollywood will unwrap nine new movies from Friday through Christmas in hopes that a bountiful holiday season can make up for what has been a disappointing year at the box office.
Studios are serving up singing rodents, a skyscraper-scaling action hero, a horse caught up in a war and an animated kid reporter as they seek to capitalize on two of the most popular moviegoing weeks of the year.
"Everybody is targeting this window when lots of people are out of school or work and looking for something to do with their families," Paramount Pictures Vice Chairman Rob Moore said.
But the offerings come at a steep price for the studios, which collectively invested more than $750 million to produce the films and will spend additional hundreds of millions to promote them around the world. The stakes are particularly high this year, as box-office revenue so far is down 4% from the same time in 2010 and attendance is off 5% — the largest such drop since 2005.
Although expectations are high for many of the upcoming pictures, some in the industry are concerned that the abundance of releases — the most to hit theaters in the week leading up to Christmas since 2008 — could prove overwhelming for cinema operators and moviegoers.
"We've got more films than we can handle," said Phil Zacheretti, president of Phoenix Big Cinemas Management, which operates 24 theaters in 13 states. "There are nine films with the potential to do good business, but moviegoers can't squeeze them all into this short period of time."
Recent disappointments like "Happy Feet Two," "Jack and Jill" and "New Year's Eve" have heightened concerns among studio executives that their movie picks are having trouble exciting audiences.
"Everyone is sort of doom and gloom right now," said Chris Aronson, senior vice president of distribution at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the upcoming releases "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" and "We Bought a Zoo," starring Matt Damon. "But I don't think it's Chicken Little time yet."
Studios aren't the only ones counting on an uptick.
"We've been terribly disappointed in business since September, so we're excited to see what looks like one of the strongest lineups we have had in years," said Alan Grossberg, chief executive of Southern California theater chain Ultrastar Cinemas.
The movies making exhibitors like Grossberg optimistic include three sequels to popular blockbusters, which are best positioned to sell the most tickets, according to people who have seen pre-release surveys. The third film in the animated/live-action hybrid "Chipmunks" franchise and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" open Friday. "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" debuts on more than 400 large format screens this weekend and expands nationwide Wednesday. Each is expected to gross well over $100 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Six other pictures aren't polling as strongly but could break out based on positive word of mouth. They are David Fincher's adaptation of the bestselling novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"; Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin," which is already a hit in Europe but is not a well-known property among Americans; Cameron Crowe's family drama "Zoo"; Spielberg's World War I epic "War Horse"; the science-fiction thriller "The Darkest Hour"; and the Charlize Theron dark comedy "Young Adult," which expands from eight theaters to nearly 1,000 on Friday.
Additionally, there are several specialty films that will be debuting or expanding their runs, such as the black-and-white silent movie "The Artist"; the spy drama "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," based on John Le Carre's 1974 bestseller; and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," starring Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks.
Although many of the movies are targeting different audiences — families for "Chipmunks" and "Tintin," action-loving men for "Mission: Impossible" and an edgy crowd for the R-rated "Dragon Tattoo" — experts say it will be impossible to escape the holidays without some box-office road kill.
"I fear that there are simply not enough moviegoers to support nine widely and nearly simultaneously released films," said Kevin Goetz, chief executive of research company Film Engine.
As a result, studios are competing to secure the best screens for their movies, trying to ensure that there are plenty of available seats when people head to their local multiplex.
"There's a war going on among every single distributor, who are asking "Can I get the number of seats I want to open on?' and then 'Can I hold on to them?'" said Jack Foley, president of distribution for "Tinker Tailor" studio Focus Features.
Exhibitors with 10 or more screens don't have as much to worry about as smaller theaters. "We have several eight- or five-screen locations where we have to pick and choose," said Zacheretti. "Does that cause friction with the studios? Absolutely."
History indicates that box-office receipts can explode around the holidays. In 2009, when "Avatar" and the last "Sherlock" and "Chipmunks" movies debuted, audiences spent $764 million on tickets in the last two weeks of the year, according to Hollywood.com. But last year, when people were less interested in "Tron: Legacy" and "Little Fockers," that number plummeted to $590 million.
"Box office has the ability to expand like an accordion this time of year," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' domestic distribution president.
The "Sherlock" and "Chipmunks" sequels are both expected to open slightly below previous entries in their series, at about $55 million and close to $40 million, respectively.
This year's winners and losers — and the state of the overall market — won't be clear until the week after Christmas. The holiday weekend itself probably will be slow because many theaters will close early on Christmas Eve, which is a Saturday night. But the week of Dec. 25 through 31 should see cinemas packed.
"It's not so much a showdown on a particular weekend," said Sony Pictures Vice Chairman Jeff Blake, "as it is who can make it all the way through some of the best moviegoing days of the year."