A wave of new releases hits the multilplexes on Friday as the North American box office looks to bounce back after a slugglish weekend and get the final month of the year started with a bang.

Mel Gibson‘s ultraviolent historical epic "Apocalypto" hits theaters nationwide while his "What Women Want" director Nancy Meyers counters with the feel-good romantic comedy "The Holiday" starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet. The latter’s iceberg lover Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the new political thriller "Blood Diamond" and kids too young for all those flicks will be offered the family comedy "Unaccompanied Minors."

Mel Gibson once again plays tricks on the box office bringing forth one of the most unpredictable grossers of the year in "Apocalypto." The R-rated film examines the end of the once-great Mayan civilization from five centuries ago with the story of one brave man, captured by warriors and set to be sacrificed, who must break free and rescue his pregnant wife and young son. As one of the bloodiest and most violent films of 2006, the Buena Vista release is also one of the most challenging to market. Like the director’s last effort, 2004’s smash hit "The Passion of the Christ," "Apocalypto" is made in a language now dead and is subtitled all the way through. But whereas "Passion" had some small level of starpower, Gibson’s new offering boasts a cast of unknowns including many non-actors.

Selling a subtitled film with no stars about a part of history that few today are talking about is risky enough. But Gibson’s arrest over the summer for drunk driving and his anti-Jewish remarks led to horrible PR for "Apocalypto’s" only marketable asset. A few weeks ago, this film looked like it would have a tough road to travel in order to succeed. But like with "Passion," targeted marketing at those audience segments most likely to embrace the pic has helped fuel positive buzz and even good reviews have sparked more interest, not only with moviegoers, but also with exhibitors. Disney upped its opening weekend run from 2,000 to 2,500 theaters as the exhibition community is showing more confidence in the box office potential of the film. "Passion" also saw its theater bookings jump in the final weeks before launching.

Because of Gibson’s summer escapade, there are some who cannot be convinced to spend money and time on a Mel movie. However, the controversy has given "Apocalypto" a ton of free media exposure over the last couple of months and curiosity has grown. Plus the studio has wisely targeted the large Latino audience which never gets to see a big Hollywood epic made about its ancient history. They came out in big numbers for "Passion" and are expected to show up again this weekend. Also there are moviegoers sick of wasting time and money on sequels and remakes who want something fresh and unique that are looking at the Mayan adventure as an experience they can’t get anywhere else. It will be a closely-watched opening for "Apocalypto," but a weekend tally of about $15M could result giving Gibson a reasonable shot at scoring back-to-back number one hits with foreign language movies.

Mel Gibson’s "Apocalypto."

Moviegoers in search of less bloodshed and a lower body count this weekend will be checking out the new romantic comedy "The Holiday" which stars Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as two frustrated professionals who decide to swap homes in order to get away from their woes. The PG-13 film finds Diaz going to snowy England while Winslet’s character heads to sunny Los Angeles. Jude Law and Jack Black play the love interests in the Nancy Meyers film. "Holiday" boasts plenty of starpower even though the casting of Nacho Libre in a date movie will have many scratching their heads. Teenage girls and adult women will make up the primary audience, but male interest will be there too thanks to the sassy Diaz who remains a big box office pull with both genders.

Female audiences have been neglected in recent weeks with most major grossers tapping into male or family audiences. The December marketplace will welcome a multi-star romantic comedy set during the Christmas season, however the whites-only casting policy may prevent a more diverse turnout. Sony offered sneak previews last Saturday to boost awareness and word-of-mouth. "Holiday" looks to reach the same crowds that came out for previous mid-December romantic comedies like last year’s "The Family Stone" ($12.5M opening), Meyers’ 2003 hit "Something’s Gotta Give" ($16.1M), and 2002’s Yankee-Brit combo "Two Weeks Notice" ($14.3M). "The Holiday" should receive good cheer from ticket buyers and take in roughly $15M this weekend.

Kate Winslet and Jack Black in "The Holiday."

Like this weekend’s Mel Gibson epic, Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film "Blood Diamond" is also a violent tale of a man whose village is ransacked by warlords and who must fight to retrieve his wife and family. This time, the action takes place only seven years ago in the African nation of Sierra Leone where rebels fight to protect their illegal diamond trade. Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly co-star in the R-rated film directed by Ed Zwick ("The Last Samurai," "Glory"). Warner Bros. has poured some major marketing dollars into hyping up its new political thriller and like most major releases these days, "Blood Diamond" has some controversy of its own which the studio hopes will help generate more interest. Many stories have been written about how the film might impact the global diamond industry as more Americans (by far the world’s largest consumers of the gem) learn about how conflict diamonds make their way into the market.

Story and starpower should be the main factors at the box office, however. DiCaprio has pull and Hounsou has been getting lots of notice for this role including winning the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review this week. A year ago this weekend, DiCaprio’s "Departed" foe Matt Damon teamed up with George Clooney for the international political saga "Syriana" which went nationwide with a $11.7M opening from 1,752 theaters for a $6,699 average. With mixed reviews and only 158 more theaters, "Blood Diamond" could find itself in the same neighborhood as it will appeal to much the same audience. Young women who dig the "Titanic" boy and want more upbeat entertainment may get steered over to "The Holiday" and young men who seek screen violence will find much more of it in "Apocalypto" so competition will be fierce this weekend. Opening in 1,910 theaters, "Blood Diamond" might shine with around $12M this weekend.

Leo and Djimon in "Blood Diamond."

Kids have just one new movie aimed at them this weekend. Warner Bros. offers up its second wide release of the frame with "Unaccompanied Minors," a story about a group of children causing chaos when left behind at an airport. The PG-rated film will play exclusively to the family crowd and with "Happy Feet," "Deck the Halls," and even "The Santa Clause 3" still lingering in the marketplace, competition will be tight. Lewis Black and Wilmer Valderrama are the only major names here so starpower will not be much of a factor in drawing in paying customers. "Minors" just does not have enough bells and whistles to rise above the crowded arena. Although the film opens with the most number of theaters, it may end up with the worst gross among the newbies. "Unaccompanied Minors" sneaks into 2,775 sites and could take in about $9M.

A group of kids up to airport hijinks in "Unaccompanied Minors."

After a three-week party atop the box office charts, "Happy Feet" will dance its way down a couple of notches thanks to the wave of new product. "Unaccompanied Minors" will be the only true competitor so the drop should not be too hard. A 35% fall to about $11M could result giving Warner Bros. $136M overall.

James Bond has also been celebrating a solid box office run with its three straight silver medals and is hoping to surpass "The Devil Wears Prada" ($124.7M) and "Over the Hedge" ($155M) to eventually become the top-grossing film of 2006 to not reach the number one spot. This weekend, a 40% decline could be in order giving Agent 007 around $9M for the session pushing the cume for Sony to $129M.

LAST YEAR: Making a big splash at the box office was "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" which bowed to a ferocious $65.6M for the second largest December opening in history. Disney’s effects-filled adventure went on to capture $291.7M domestically and a stunning $750M worldwide. Opening far back in the runnerup spot, but still posting solid numbers, was the oil industry drama "Syriana" with $11.7M and a $6,699 average. The Warner Bros. release went on to gross $50.8M domestically and $93M globally. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" dropped to third after three weeks at number one and grossed $10.3M. The Johnny Cash flick "Walk the Line" followed with $5.7M and the family comedy "Yours, Mine & Ours" rounded out the top five with $5.1M. Debuting in limited release with explosive averages were "Memoirs of a Geisha" with a $85,313 average from eight locations and "Brokeback Mountain" with a $109,485 average from only five theaters. Final domestic grosses reached $57M and $83M and each won three Oscars.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

JoBlo brings us the latest word on what’s going down in Shrekworld, and it seems that the second sequel will NOT be called "Shrek 3," but instead "Shrek the Third," as if that makes any sort of difference. Aside from the stunning bit of news, DreamWorks also treated us to a mini-synopsis, which you can read right here…

"SHREK THE THIRD finds Shrek and Fiona reluctantly reigning over Far, Far Away. But if they can find the heir to the throne and bring him back, they can return to their swamp. While Shrek, Donkey and Puss in Boots are in search of the heir, Fiona holds off a coup d’etat by Prince Charming."

Returning for a third go-round are Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, and Eddie Murphy, and they’ll be rejoined by sequel-pals Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, and Antonio Banderas. Oh, and Justin Timberlake is in there, too, just so you know…

Variety brings word that Jude Law will co-star opposite Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, and Jack Black in the suddenly-cool-sounding "Holiday," which will be directed by rom-com expert Nancy Meyers.

"Jude Law has been set to play the male lead in "Holiday," the romantic comedy writer-director Nancy Meyers will shoot for Columbia Pictures early next year.

Law will play the love interest opposite Cameron Diaz, a woman on the rebound who vacations in London and strikes up a friendship with a British woman (Kate Winslet) who has also been dumped. Jack Black rounds out the quartet.

Pic is shooting in London and Los Angeles. Col exec veep Amy Baer is overseeing the pic, and Meyers is producing through the overall deal she signed at the studio when she wrote and directed "Something’s Gotta Give.""

Ms. Meyers other films include "What Women Want" and the remake of "The Parent Trap."

According to Variety, funnyman Jack Black has signed on to co-star alongside Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz in Columbia Pictures’ "Holiday," which is a romantic comedy from "What Women Want" director Nancy Meyers.

"Ensembler focuses on a friendship that crops up between an American woman and a British woman, both of whom have been recently dumped. Black will play a film composer who becomes friendly with Winslet’s character after she settles temporarily in L.A.

Meyers is zeroing in on landing a British thesp to play the love interest for Diaz’s character."

Ms. Meyers is also known for movies like "Something’s Gotta Give," "I Love Trouble," "Baby Boom," and both "Father of the Bride" flicks.

Cameron Diaz ("Charlie’s Angels") will headline writer/director Nancy Meyers‘ "Holiday," according to Variety. Ms. Diaz will star in the ensemble comedy, playing "a woman with man trouble until she crosses paths with a woman from a small English village with a similar dilemma."

Nancy Meyers is the filmmaker behind such hits as "What Women Want" and "Something’s Gotta Give," and she expects to start production on the Sony project later this year. Next up for Cameron Diaz is Curtis Hanson‘s "In Her Shoes."

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