Following the worst box office weekend in three years, Hollywood has nowhere to go but up. It hopes.

Four new pictures enter wide release on Friday led by the sports drama "Gridiron Gang" from Sony which is gunning for its tenth trip to the number one spot this year. Universal goes after an older crowd with the crime thriller "The Black Dahlia," Fox aims for kids with the animated film "Everyone’s Hero," and Paramount tries to court the adult date crowd with "The Last Kiss." Overall, the North American marketplace should bounce back from last weekend’s horrible showing, but only by a small margin.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson hopes to score the fifth number one opening of his career this weekend with the football saga "Gridiron Gang." The PG-13 film finds the wrestler-turned-actor playing a juvenile camp officer who assembles a pigskin squad in order to give lost kids some hope in life. Sony is targeting one of the most reliable moviegoing segments with "Gang" – urban youth. With a young and multicultural cast, plus a star in the lead role, this new film hopes to appeal to the same crowd that made hits out of other sports flicks like "Remember the Titans" and "Coach Carter." Of course, the star this time is not an Oscar-caliber actor. "Gang’s" marketing push has been strong and an ultrawide release will make the product available everywhere.


Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in "Gridiron Gang."

The Rock provides solid starpower, although his box office muscle in recent years has delivered openings in a very narrow range. Pics like "The Rundown," "Walking Tall," and "Doom" have all debuted within the $15-19M range. "Gridiron Gang’s" rating should open the doors to a wider audience and with the start of the NFL and college football seasons, the subject matter is very relevant at this time of year. Plus with a dead marketplace featuring choices that are exciting nobody, teens and young adults should find this one the only film worth rallying behind. Charging into 3,504 locations, "Gridiron Gang" will have no problem conquering the box office and could score around $17M this weekend.

Moviegoers opting for a trip back to the 1940s instead of a football pic can choose Brian De Palma‘s "The Black Dahlia" which Universal opens on Friday. The R-rated thriller stars Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as Los Angeles cops investigating the mysterious death of a young woman chopped in half and disemboweled. Scarlett Johansson and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank take the token female roles. Just as with "Hollywoodland" which bowed last weekend, "Dahlia" will play to an older adult audience interested in LA-based crime noir pics from the mid twentieth century. Unlike with the younger-skewing "Gridiron Gang," reviews will play a big part in the success or failure of "Dahlia." This one needs more support from critics than it’s getting in order to become a commercial winner. Starpower is certainly there, but the subject matter may not pique the interest of adults across all 50 states. Add in competition for the target audience plus an overall slowdown in moviegoing activity and it may be hard for the studio to break even on this one. "The Black Dahlia" enters 2,224 theaters and might collect around $9M this weekend.


Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are on the case in "The Black Dahlia."

Following this summer’s "Superman Returns" and last week’s George Reeves mystery "Hollywoodland," the Man of Steel spotlight now turns to the late Christopher Reeve whose final project, the animated sports tale "Everyone’s Hero," makes its way into theaters on Friday. With voices provided by Rob Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, and William H. Macy, the G-rated flick tells of a boy on a mission to retrieve Babe Ruth’s stolen bat. Reeve co-directed with Colin Brady and Dan St. Pierre. Fox will be looking to attract kids and Little League coach parents with "Hero." The film is not registering too high on the priority lists of children. But the studio does have one thing working in its favor – the current marketplace has nothing major for children. And don’t expect the other new releases to appeal to the family crowd either. Opening surprisingly wide in 2,896 theaters, "Everyone’s Hero" could score around $7M this weekend.


The animated Babe Ruth in Christopher Reeve’s "Everyone’s Hero."

TV stars Zach Braff of NBC’s "Scrubs" and Rachel Bilson of Fox’s "The O.C." join forces on the big screen in "The Last Kiss" which Paramount inherited from its DreamWorks tie-up. The R-rated remake of an Italian film about a man in the early stages of a mid-life crisis also stars Casey Affleck, Blythe Danner, and Tom Wilkinson. The marketing push behind "Kiss" has been lacking so look for the romantic dramedy to become a small blip on the box office radar this weekend. Adult women will make up the primary audience making period pics "Dahlia" and "Hollywoodland" direct competitors. Consumer excitement is pretty low for "The Last Kiss" which heads into only 1,100 theaters. A weekend gross of roughly $4M could result.


Zach Braff and that chick from "The Real World" in "The Last Kiss."

The new fall season brings a flood of activity in limited-release action. Balcony Releasing got the frame started on Wednesday with its New York opening of the political doc "Al Franken: God Spoke" which adds a second Manhattan venue on Friday. The raunchy softball comedy "Artie Lange’s Beer League" opens on Friday in about 175 theaters. With Ralph Macchio in the cast, the R-rated Echo Bridge release should find itself stuck in six-digit territory. Yari Film Group unleashes the Cayman Islands-set drama "Haven," which stars Orlando Bloom and Bill Paxton, into 24 theaters across the country.

The mockumentary wedding comedy "Confetti" bows in a dozen sites from Fox Searchlight. American troops in Iraq are the focus of the Focus Features documentary "The Ground Truth" which attacks eight theaters. Lionsgate offers up its own non-fiction flick "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" in six playdates examining the Beatles icon’s rage against the establishment.

Sony’s ninth number one of the year "The Covenant" looks to get booted out of the top spot by the studio’s tenth chart-topper. A 50% drop would give the teen thriller about $4.5M for the frame and a modest ten-day cume of $15M. "Hollywoodland" lacked strength in its debut and will now face a direct hit from "Dahlia" so a 45% decline could be in order. That would give Focus around $3.5M over the weekend putting the total at a weak $11M after ten days.

LAST YEAR: Reese Witherspoon captured the number one spot with her latest comedy "Just Like Heaven" which grossed $16.4M on its way to $48.3M for DreamWorks. Sony’s surprise suspense hit "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" lost half its business and dropped to second with $14.9M in its sophomore frame. Nicolas Cage bowed in third with his new actioner "Lord of War" with $9.4M. The Lions Gate release reached $24.1M. Steve Carell enjoyed his fifth week in the top five with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" which laughed up $6M. The horror pic "Cry Wolf" bowed poorly in fifth with only $4.4M leading to a $10M finish.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

Horror fans take note! Here’s the first ‘official’ trailer for "Slither," which is a rather splattery-looking horror/sci-fi chestnut from writer/director James Gunn.

"Slither" marks Mr. Gunn’s directorial debut, although he’s certainly no stranger to the genre fare. As a screenwriter, he has his name on both "Scooby-Doo" flicks, as well as the well-received "Dawn of the Dead" remake, and a rather funny (and sadly overlooked) comedy called "The Specials."

Basically, "Slither" is about an alien infestation that causes massive human mutation, several inevitably icky demises, and a whole lot of gooey chaos in general. "Serenity" star Nathan Fillion heads a cast that also includes the lovely Elizabeth Banks, the oily Gregg Henry, and the always hissable Michael Rooker.

Annoyingly enough, Universal recently moved "Slither" from a late January release date to one in late March, but hey, it’s always cool to have an impending monster movie on the horizon. Check out the trailer and see what you think. (Asture horror geeks might notice a few shots that pay homage to the no-budget classic "Night of the Creeps.")

P.S. Hardcore horror fans cheer: "Slither" has been rated R for "strong horror violence and gore, and language."

As expected, the Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy "Just Like Heaven" handily snagged the #1 spot at the weekend box office, grossing an estimated $16.5 million from 3,500 theaters. Based on the early returns from Ms. Witherspoon’s last vehicle, "Sweet Home Alabama," the tally is seen as somewhat of a disappointment, but hey, first place is still first place.

Slidiing to second place in its sophomore weekend was the occult drama "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which added about $15 million to its $52 million total. Debuting in third place was Nicolas Cage‘s action flick "Lord of War," which commanded $9.2 million from 2,800 theaters.

Fourth place went to the sleeper hit "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," which added almost $6 million to its bank, giving it a total of just over $90 million. Rogue Pictures’ "Cry Wolf" broke into the top five with a $4.5 million tally from nearly 1,800 theaters. (And considering the thing cost just over a million bucks to make, 5th place ain’t half bad.)

The only other "semi-wide" release this past weekend was Dimension’s horror flick "Venom," which pulled in a rather paltry $501,000 from just under 500 theaters.

Tim Burton‘s "Corpse Bride" debuted on five screens and made about $411,000 on each of ’em, which means next weekend’s wide release should bring in some copious cash indeed. Also opening wide on Friday are Jodie Foster‘s "Flightplan" thriller, and Fox Searchlight’s "Roll Bounce."

As always, you’re invited to get a closer look at the weekend numbers by visiting the Rotten Tomatoes Box Office Page.

This week at the movies brings us a supernatural romance ("Just Like Heaven"), a jaded arms dealer ("Lord of War") and two experiments in terror ("Venom," "Cry Wolf"). What do the critics have to say?

"Ghost," "Wings of Desire," "City of Angels"…. The list of movie romances that vacillate between heaven and earth isn’t short. But the critics say "Just Like Heaven," starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, is charming, if slight, rom-com entertainment. The story of a San Francisco architect who meets an ethereal woman who may be a ghost, "Just Like Heaven" is floating along at 63 percent on the Tomatometer. And it should help Witherspoon’s combined Tomatometer, which currently stands at 52 percent.

The movies are pretty cavalier about showing bad guys (and good guys) with huge caches of weapons, but it’s rare for a film to actually address the issues behind the weapons trade. "Lord of War," starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto and Ethan Hawke, tells the darkly comic story of a self-justifying arms trader who doesn’t ask too many questions about how his product will be used. The critics say that’s a nice summary for what’s wrong with the film, currently at 41 percent. While it raises some interesting questions, "Lord of War"’s aim is off, and the script can’t get beyond its tricky moral questions.

The critics are busting out their poison pens for "Venom," a slasher movie that the scribes say fails to distinguish itself from hundreds of friends-in-peril flicks. Starring Agnes Bruckner, Jonathan Jackson and Method Man, the plot involves several kids who try to uncover the secret behind the death of a friend; naturally, they discover evil at every turn. At 22 percent, the critics say this "Venom" deserves a Mr. Yuck sticker.

Oh, and I don’t mean to "Cry Wolf," but any time a movie is in wide release and it’s not screened for critics, that’s never a very good sign.

Recent Nicolas Cage Movies:
———————————-
42% — National Treasure (2004)
82% — Matchstick Men (2003)
33% — Windtalkers (2002)
91% — Adaptation (2002)
26% — Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

Apple Quicktime delivers a rather slick-looking trailer for "Cry Wolf," which is a Focus Features fright flick that’s presently set for a September 23rd release date. Directed by Jeff Wadlow, "Cry Wolf" stars Julian Morris ("Spin"), Lindy Booth ("Dawn of the Dead"), and Jared Padalecki ("House of Wax") as troublemaking high-schoolers who "cry wolf" once too often — just as a bloodthirsty slasher arrives on the scene.