It's chilly out there -- and that applies not only to the weather but also to moviegoer interest.
With one week remaining in the 2008 movie season, annual attendance is off more than 3% compared with last year, according to the box-office research firm Media by Numbers. Thanks to higher ticket prices, year-to-date grosses are running about 1% ahead of 2007's record pace of $9.68 billion, but with DVD sales and international returns crumbling, no one in Hollywood has cause to burst into song (flames, maybe).
If the movie business can end the year on an upbeat note, it will hinge on the performance of five big films premiering in wide release on Christmas. While many of December's releases so far have been award-oriented dramas that are managing solid but hardly blockbuster returns, this weekend's slate is far more commercial -- and there might be one, if not two, $200-million-grossing films in the mix.
Here's our ranking of how the new movies should premiere, ordered from best to worst, with mitigating and aggravating circumstances taken into account: .
annual attendance Marketing executives from rival studios say Disney's campaign for its Adam Sandler family fantasy has been perfect, and audience tracking surveys now are showing that the sales effort is peaking at just the right time. With interest from parents and kids sky-high, "Bedtime Stories" will finish in first place, possibly grossing as much as $45 million over the four-day weekend. If audience support holds into the new year, it could end up becoming a $200-million breakout.
Mitigating: With everybody arguing over what movie to see over the holidays, "Bedtime Stories" could be the compromise pick.
Aggravating: Sandler's core comedy audience (older teens and young males) may opt for "Valkyrie" or "The Spirit" instead.
' Marley & Me'
annual attendance Fox's joyless commercial and critical year is finally ending, but it could close on a positive note. The studio's adaptation of the bestselling book about a lovable but sometimes wayward dog is generating strong interest from women of all ages. The Owen Wilson- Jennifer Aniston movie also is the kind of tear-jerker that feels far more appropriate at Christmas than "Seven Pounds." Look for an opening weekend around $30 million.
Mitigating: Even poorly reviewed female-friendly movies (see "Four Christmases") have done incredible business this season.
Aggravating: Young children enticed by the film's cuddly marketing effort may be devastated by the story's final frames, as some graffiti vandals have tried to warn on billboards for the film.
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'
some graffiti vandals Director David Fincher's most emotional movie yet has been attracting four-star reviews and the kind of award attention that could keep the Paramount film playing through February, especially if "Button" is nominated for the best picture Oscar. Brad Pitt's titular character should generate opening weekend sales of about $26 million.
Mitigating: Adult moviegoers (who don't rush the multiplex on opening weekend) may give "Button" what the industry likes to call "very long legs," or the ability to stay in theaters for weeks.
Aggravating: The film's epic running time (2 hours, 47 minutes) will cost the movie a showing on Christmas Day.
some graffiti vandals Tom Cruise's historical drama isn't at the top of everyone's holiday wish list (Let's go see some Nazis for Hanukkah!) and the film has bounced around MGM's release schedule like a new pogo stick on Christmas morning. But thanks to MGM's heavy advertising expenditures and a campaign that sells the film as a thriller, audience interest -- especially among men -- has soared. Against long odds, "Valkyrie" may gross $20 million in its opening weekend period.
Mitigating: Though still a divisive personality, Cruise has been likable in his promotional appearances.
Aggravating: No matter how hard Cruise has tried, the actor's once-gigantic appeal among women is, particularly with this film, much smaller than it once was.
some graffiti vandals In an ominous sign, the tracking firm National Research Group on Tuesday lowered its weekend estimates for Frank Miller's adaptation of the comic-book series (although the "Spirit" forecast from rival tracking company MarketCast improved). With poor early reviews, "The Spirit" may actually open behind Jim Carrey's holdover "Yes Man" and finish in sixth place with about $10 million, meaning Lionsgate will need the film to play into 2009 to make money on the movie.
Mitigating: Among young men, "The Spirit" is the weekend's No. 1 choice.
Aggravating: They may end up being dragged by their wives and girlfriends to "Marley & Me" or "Benjamin Button."