From reviving an exuberant 1980s film and TV franchise about singing and dancing high-school students with "Fame," to bringing an all-time children's classic to the screen with Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," nervous Hollywood studio executives are trying a little bit of everything in an effort to weather, and maybe rise a little bit above, these uncertain economic times.
Among the heavy guns being called into service: new movies from directors Joel and Ethan Coen ("A Serious Man"), Steven Soderbergh ("The Informant"), Wes Anderson ("Fantastic Mr. Fox"), Robert Zemeckis ("A Christmas Carol"), even rookie Drew Barrymore ("Whip It"); a bevy of animated projects, including "9," "Astroboy," "Planet 51," and 3D re-releases of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2"; and stars including George Clooney ("Men Who Stare at Goats"), Charlize Theron ("The Road"), John Travolta and Robin Williams ("Old Dogs") and Sandra Bullock ("The Blind Side").
Studios have good reason to be nervous. Box-office receipts, while hovering at near-record levels at the beginning of the year, were down or flat throughout much of the summer.
Even more troubling, from a financial standpoint: DVD sales, which have accounted for the lion's share of studio profits in recent years, are in the second year of a noticeable slump. For 2008, overall home-video sales were down 8.5 percent; for the first quarter of 2009, DVD sales alone fell 14 percent.
In large measure, studios will be counting on stories of the fantastic to draw in audiences; through November, few weeks will pass without a science fiction or horror film opening in theaters. That includes what could be the runaway hit of the fall, at least among pre-teen girls and the adults who sit next to them: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (Nov. 20) returns with Robert Pattinson as a moody, sad-eyed vampire and Kristen Stewart as the high-school girl who loves him. The first chapter in the series, last year's "Twilight," earned more than $190 million domestically, on an estimated budget of only $37 million.
Even though they won't arrive with the assured audience of the "Twilight" sequel, other sci-fi and horror movies hoping to appeal to fans of the fantastic include "Jennifer's Body" (Sept. 18), with Megan Fox as a high-school siren with some dangerous appetites; "Zombieland" (Oct. 2), with Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg forming an unlikely bond as they struggle to survive in a zombified world; and "2012" (Nov. 13), with John Cusack and Amanda Peet fighting to survive the end of the world.
Hollywood will be continuing its recent love affair with animation. Animated films offer the two-pronged advantage of relatively lower costs (especially when compared to such mega-buck projects as James Cameron's "Avatar," which will be hitting theaters in December with an estimated budget hovering around $200 million) and built-in appeal to younger audiences. Among the more anticipated offerings are the post-apocalyptic hero tale "9" (Sept. 9); a re-imagination of the pioneering Japanese anime series "Astro Boy" (Oct. 23), with Freddie Highmore as the world's most powerful pre-adolescent robot and Nicolas Cage as his creator/father, Dr. Tenma; and "Planet 51" (Nov. 20), set on a planet where a visiting astronaut discovers little green men leading a pretty nice life.
A handful of intriguing dramas, some of which the studios are doubtless positioning for late-season Oscar consideration, are sprinkled through the fall schedule. They include "The Informant" (Sept. 18), with Matt Damon as a whistle-blower who seems to have trouble keeping his facts straight; "The Box" (Nov. 6), with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple facing a moral dilemma that could lead to riches for them but death to someone they don't even know; and "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" (Nov. 20), the story of a struggling young woman determined to enroll in a special school and improve her life. "Precious" features an eye-opening star turn from Baltimore's own Mo'Nique as the girl's abusive and destructive mother.
Comedies opening in the fall include the filmed-in-Baltimore "My One and Only" (Sept. 4), a mid-1950s period piece with Renee Zellweger as a mother who takes her two sons on her cross-country trip in search of a wealthy man to take care of them all; "Whip It" (Oct. 2), from first-time director Drew Barrymore, starring Ellen Page as a teen misfit who finds a surrogate family when she joins the roller derby; and "Old Dogs" (Nov. 25), with John Travolta and Robin Williams as reluctant caretakers of a 6-year-old.