While most Americans will be dining on turkey and other treats during the holidays, Hollywood executives will be biting their nails and hoping for a big year-end movie season.
Holiday moviegoing kicks off Friday with the latest "Harry Potter" film leading a pack of big-budget flicks seeking huge payoffs at box offices while other movies, like Mideast saga "Syriana" aim for the Oscars.
It is no secret that ticket sales are down for 2005 after a host of summer films bombed, so the major studios are counting on fantasy films "Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and a "King Kong" remake to restore moviegoers' faith in film.
"The pressure is on," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office watcher Exhibitor Relations Co Inc. "This holiday season is being held to a high standard in terms of quality, because we always need that quality, and in terms of the box office."
So far this year, U.S. and Canadian ticket receipts stand at $7.6 billion, down about 7 percent from $8.16 billion posted for the same point in 2004, and attendance is down roughly 8 percent.
The holidays are the year's second-biggest moviegoing period, and Hollywood is counting on momentum from a solid "Potter" debut — the first three movies in the franchise have sold more than $2.6 billion worth of tickets worldwide — to carry the season into December.
Director Mike Newell has promised fans that he pushed the latest "Potter" installment to new creative heights in a tale of teen romance and Harry's encounter with his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort.
"The producers were quite extraordinary about letting me go," he told Reuters, adding that the story is "a kind of fusion of children's film and an adult's film."
Beyond the boy wizard
But "Potter" is not the only big movie this weekend. "Walk the Line" about country music icons Johnny Cash and June Carter also debuts in theaters, blending music with the story of their romance and early recording careers.
Performers Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Cash, and Reese Witherspoon, who co-stars as Carter, already are being talked about for Oscars, and the movie is on the must-see list for award watchers.
"Syriana," starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, also has Oscar aspirations. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote 2000's drug war movie "Traffic," brings a contemporary story of the Middle East to movie screens.
"It tackles, hopefully in an interesting way, things that are going on right now. We're talking about oil and oil politics, about the war on terror and about how families are adapting" to those issues, Gaghan said.
Also on the Oscar front before December will come "Rent," based on the hit Broadway musical about young New Yorkers.
Those films join titles like "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Shopgirl," and "Capote," which are now playing in theaters and have award ambitions for their actors — David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," Claire Danes in "Shopgirl" and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role of "Capote.”
December movies on the awards watch list include "Memoirs of a Geisha," based on the popular novel about a Japanese geisha, and "Brokeback Mountain," which tells of the overwhelming power of love in a romance between two cowboys, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.
Beyond OscarBoth known as sexy leading men, Gyllenhaal and Ledger risked alienating audiences and damaging careers by playing gay men having sex on screen. But Gyllenhaal said his profession is about pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable.
"As an actor, it's a constant question of whether I will ever get hired again ... (but) this idea is so important, and if that meant for a couple of takes I was going to have to make out with some guy, then so be it," Gyllenhaal said.
Other movies with Oscar ambition now starting to make the rounds in Hollywood screening rooms include Woody Allen romance "Match Point" and Steven Spielberg's "Munich," about the aftermath of the Palestinian attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Few Oscar hopefuls produce the $100 million-plus paydays Hollywood needs to get back on its star-studded feet, but if there are two this year, they are "Narnia" and "King Kong."
Both movies debut in early December to get a jump on Christmas moviegoing and are filled with special effects.
"Narnia" is based on the children's books by C.S. Lewis that are populated by talking animals and tell of epic battles between good and evil that have a strong Christian slant.
"Kong" derives its story from the popular tale of an enormous gorilla let loose to ravage mankind and is made by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.
Also in late November and into December come family films like "Yours, Mine and Ours" and "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," comedies "Fun with Dick & Jane" and "The Family Stone" and the musical "The Producers."