This fall, Warner Bros. is trying to reinvent Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey Jr. starring as the fictional sleuth. Spike Jonze, who directed “Being John Malkovich,” will put a modern twist on the storybook classic “Where the Wild Things Are.” And some recent best sellers, including Walter Kirn’s “Up in the Air” and Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” (in an adaptation from “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson) will hit the big screen.
Hollywood is racing to adapt novels, comics, and children’s stories, as the ability of movie stars to draw audiences wanes. Popular books, with built-in fan bases, pose less risk for Hollywood studios trying to eke out a profit in a tough economic climate. One of the most-anticipated adaptations is the November sequel to “Twilight,” based on the best-selling book series by Stephenie Meyer.
A wave of animated films based on children’s stories are scheduled for release over the next several months, including Disney’s revision of the age-old fairy tale, “The Princess and the Frog”; Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a mostly stop-motion animation version of the Roald Dahl novella; and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” a 3-D take on the popular children’s book.
One giant exception: Oscar-winning director James Cameron returns to feature filmmaking for the first time since “Titanic” with his new movie “Avatar,” a sci-fi epic with an original story that’s not based on a book. The 3-D movie follows a war veteran (played by Sam Worthington) on his journey to an alien planet.
After a summer that saw box office revenues soar ahead of old records, there are far fewer films coming out in the U.S. this fall and winter season, with just 135 films currently planned for release through the end of the 2009. That’s down 32% from 2008, when 199 films were released during the same period, according to data compiled by Jeff Bock, an analyst at box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. That number could climb slightly higher after the studios acquire films at fall festivals, but it’s still a significant drop from previous years, when as many as 240 films were released during the period.
For years, Wall Street poured billions into the film industry, creating a glut of films as the Hollywood studios used the extra cash to ramp up production. As that money dried up last fall in the wake of the credit crunch, the studios are now producing less.
The cutback does have some positive consequences, say studio executives. “With fewer films, there won’t be as much cannibalization, and each film will have a better shot at finding its audiences,” notes Mike Vollman, who runs marketing for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, home of the James Bond franchise.
In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a crafty chicken thief—voiced by George Clooney—strives to outwit three farmers who wage war against him for stealing their prized goods. In an unusual move for an animated feature, Mr. Anderson, best known for offbeat comedies shot in subdued tones like “The Royal Tenenbaums,” made all the actors record the audio tracks together and act out some of the motions in the film, says Jason Schwartzman, who performs the voice of Ash, Mr. Fox’s runty son. “George and I are having an intense emotional scene,” he recalls, “and we weren’t in costume or makeup, but I was really on the ground digging for dirt.”
In “Avatar,” which opens in December, Mr. Cameron employs computer-generated imagery to animate some of the characters, who look like blue oversized humanoids. The director says that even though the film is in 3-D, intricate special effects are not at its emotional center. “This movie is about people running around in the rain forest, it’s not about technology,” he says.
Also coming back to the multiplex: Buzz Lightyear and teenage heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Disney will debut “Toy Story 3″ next year and in preparation, the studio will rekindle the franchise by releasing new 3-D versions of “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.” Just a year after the teen vampire romance, “Twilight,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke, became a cultural sensation, Summit Entertainment has a sequel, “New Moon“—featuring werewolves and a bevy of new special effects—set to hit theaters the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Summit hired a new director to make “New Moon,” which has “a totally different look,” according to the studio’s chief executive and co-chairman Rob Friedman, and “offers a lot more for the guys than the first movie did.” Werewolves (including Jacob Black, played by Taylor Lautner) emerge in the sequel as protectors, shielding Bella (actress Kristen Stewart) from the menacing vampires that prey on her after Edward (Mr. Pattinson) departs. The film focuses in part on that breakup—and its resolution—but it also features more computer-generated effects to render the wolves. “New Moon” director Chris Weitz says the new werewolf element forced filmmakers to ramp up the special effects. “We weren’t going to just use a guy in a wolf suit,” he says.
Hollywood’s fall line-up features two movie musicals: “Fame,” a loose remake of the 1980 hit film of the same name set at a New York high school for performing arts, and “Nine,” director Rob Marshall’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning film “Chicago.” “Nine” was inspired in part by Federico Fellini’s film “8½” and features a star-studded cast including Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis and Penélope Cruz.
A grittier take on the high school musical genre, “Fame” follows a group of students—dancers, singers, actors—as they try to achieve fame for their artistic pursuits. The original music for “Fame,” which won Academy Awards for original core and riginal song, has been supplemented and updated to sound more contemporary.
Emmy-winner Megan Mullally, who plays one of the “Fame” teachers, says that the new movie is more like a regular film than a musical. “The musical numbers are integrated in a seamless and organic way,” she says.
The fall’s comedic fare includes a new Coen brothers movie “A Serious Man,” about a physics professor (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) who struggles to raise his family in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in the Midwest when his wife threatens to leave him. “It’s Complicated,” a Nancy Meyers film, follows a woman (played by Meryl Streep) who is pursued by two men (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin).
Jason Reitman’s comedy “Up in the Air,” featuring actor George Clooney, tells the story of a corporate-downsizing consultant whose nomadic existence—and impressive frequent flier mileage—is placed in peril, making him question his lifestyle.
“The movie is about the examination of a philosophy—what if you decided to live hub to hub, with nothing, with nobody?” says Mr. Reitman, who spent six years writing the film and, in that time, got married, had a baby and directed the hit movie “Juno.”
Mr. Reitman says this film, which was only loosely based on Mr. Kirn’s novel, was a more deeply personal effort than his first two feature films, “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno.” “The main character was written very much from my own heart,” he says.
—Jamin Brophy-Warren contributed to this article