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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

predicting the summer’s sleeper hits

The calendar may think it’s still spring, but the summer movie season got underway with Spider-Man 3 a few weeks ago, and it revs up this weekend with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And no one needs a crystal ball to predict that those two flicks — as well as Harry Potter 5, The Simpsons, Big Dumb Movie About 80s Toys Every Nostalgic Xer Will See Twice, The Return of John McClane, and every other franchise, sequel, prequel, and flick otherwise presold on name recognition alone — will make more money than God has in his Orange account.

Harder is predicting which films that don’t come presold will break out and strike a cord with audiences to the tune of hundreds of millions of bucks… and sometimes only tens of millions is enough to qualify as a smash for a little film that cost only $1.98 to produce.

Of course, by definition the hits that one no one saw coming are the ones we don’t see coming, but here are my guesses for the little-films-that-could that we’ll be looking back on come September with a mix of surprise and awe.

First, the easy ones. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry [opens wide July 20], Superbad [opens wide August 17], and Balls of Fury [opens wide August 31] are almost guaranteed to earn back at least double their budgets, because stupid movies foul with toilet humor and stinking with the juvenile male fear of Teh Gay cannot miss. So I’ll just start holding my nose now and prepare myself for the onslaught.

Second, the almost-as-easy ones. Ratatouille [opens wide June 29], the latest — and quite charming looking — animated flick from the can’t-miss Pixar folks, and Mr. Bean’s Holiday [opens wide August 24], more sweet adventures from the very funny Rowan Atkinson’s manchild, will have wide, wide appeal. Kids will love ’em because they’re silly, families will love them because they’ll be something everyone can enjoy, and movie geeks will love them because, well, it’s Pixar and it’s Rowan “Blackadder” Atkinson. The Pixar flick should break $150 million without a sweat, and if it’s good enough, it could break $200 million.

Now for the far less certain films. Waitress [now playing in limited release, expands May 25] is utterly wonderful, and if it doesn’t crest early and then get lost in the rest of the summer onslaught, we could be talking not just major box office but major watercooler appeal and even an Oscar nom or two. (Murdered writer/director Adrienne Shelly is sure to get a posthumous nod for Best Original Screenplay, not just because the film is so lovely but also out of sympathy.) Nice soft sweet girlie flicks are a good general bet for counterprogramming superhero/blockbuster/geek madness, so other potential gals-outta-nowhere are the soccer-playing Gracie [opens wide June 1], the mystery-solving Nancy Drew [opens wide June 15], and the novel-writing Becoming Jane [opens in limited release August 3, expands August 10]. If I were a bet-placing gal, I’d put money on Jane as the most likely breakout after Waitress for its star, Anne Hathaway, who’s finally growing out of kid stuff to become an engaging screen presence; its subject, Jane Austen, and find me a gal who doesn’t love Jane Austen; and its indie-style costume-romance appeal.

Black comedy, with its quirky, smart-alecky charm, is also a good way to counteract slick big-studio blandness. Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral [opens in limited release June 29, expands July 4] looks like Four Weddings and a Funeral without the weddings and with a healthy dose of British-flavored snark, and the cast includes cult faves Peter Dinklage, Matthew Macfadyen, and Alan Tudyk. Fido [opens in limited release June 15, expansion unknown] is a zombie satire on conformity and paranoia, and it’s fun stuff. Black Sheep [opens in limited release June 22, expansion unknown] is kinda Evil Dead in New Zealand. Penelope [opens wide August 17] is about a pig-nosed girl played by Christina Ricci; the flick looks to have a Tim Burton sheen to it. Funeral is likely to have the widest release, so that’s probably the best bet in this category to break out.

The straight-up horror Joshua [opens in limited release July 6, expansion unknown] will probably scare up decent business with its Littlest Serial Killer tale of a murderous gradeschooler. But I’m guessing the most likely sleeper hit of them all this summer will be a real-life horror story: Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko [opens wide June 29], about the appalling state of health care in the United States. If even half of the 47 million people without health insurance in this country show up for this one, it’ll earn something like $175 million. And that’s nothing to sneeze at …

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