Los Angeles — Fall is the time when movie studios roll out (in equal measure) blockbusters and Oscar fodder. Last year's big winners included "Avatar," "New Moon" and "Sherlock Holmes." But movies that went on to earn Oscar nods, like "Up in the Air," "An Education" and "Crazy Heart," also hit theaters.
This year all eyes will be on a handful of actors and franchises that have the most to gain or lose, a list that includes a host of Hollywood A-listers including Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Reese Witherspoon and Katherine Heigl, along with multibillion-dollar properties like Harry Potter and Walt Disney's princesses.
Sixty-year-old Bridges won his first Oscar last year for his starring turn in "Crazy Heart" as a country singer dealing with a career slump and alcoholism. The film from News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight only earned $46 million at the box office, but it helped return Bridges to the ranks of leading men.
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This December he'll star in the Coen brothers' update of the John Wayne classic "True Grit." He's also headlining Disney's sequel to its 1982 film "Tron," in which he starred 26 years ago. The new 3-D film should be one of the season's biggest earners, and rumors are Bridges could appear against a younger version of himself.
If both films are hits, Bridges could find himself with another Oscar nod and a box office winner.
Bridges' "True Grit" costar, Matt Damon, is another actor with a lot on the line this season. Damon's films have struggled at the box office lately. Last year's thriller "Green Zone" earned only $95 million at the global box office; "The Informant" brought in just $42 million.
So Damon could use a hit — or at least some critical acclaim. He'll have a good chance with "True Grit." In addition to Bridges, the Coen brothers film costars Josh Brolin, who in 2007 headlined "No Country for Old Men," which won the brothers a Best Picture Oscar. Damon's other forthcoming film, "Hereafter," is directed by Oscar winner Clint Eastwood and written by Peter Morgan, a two-time Oscar nominee.
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The Disney Princesses also have a lot at stake this Fall. Disney's last princess movie, "The Princess and the Frog," hit theaters last November but failed to make a splash at the box office. The movie earned only $270 million at the worldwide box office (low by Disney Princess standards). Now Disney is trying again with "Tangled," a retelling of the Rapunzel story. In a move to attract young boys to the movie, Disney has focused the marketing not on the princess but on Flynn Rider, the hero who comes to (nominally) rescue Rapunzel.
Katherine Heigl is another star on the edge this fall. Now that she has officially left "Grey's Anatomy," Heigl needs her movie acting career to live up to the promise of films like "Knocked Up" and "27 Dresses." Unfortunately her last movie, "Killers," was a complete bomb, earning only $80 million on a production budget of $75 million.
This October she'll star in "Life As We Know" It with Josh Duhamel, about friends who have to raise a child after their mutual best friend dies. In order for Heigl to continue to command a $12 million-per-movie paycheck, she needs the Warner Bros. comedy to earn big at the box office.
Reese Witherspoon is one of the top-earning actresses in Hollywood, but her face hasn't been seen onscreen since 2008's "Four Christmases," costarring Vince Vaughn. Her latest film, "How Do You Know," is from director James L. Brooks and is poised to be the big romantic comedy this holiday season.
But when it comes to risky business in Hollywood this fall, nothing compares to the stakes facing Warner Bros. with "Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows: Part 1." With the Harry Potter franchise winding down, fans couldn't be more excited about the first installment of the last book hitting theaters this November. But that enthusiasm is going to clash with the current 3-D backlash as Warner Bros. has done what some consider unthinkable for such a beloved franchise: retrofit the film into 3-D.
© 2012 Forbes.com