The nation's movie theaters become the heart of darkness this weekend as horror films pour in in advance of Halloween. Moviegoers will take their choice among Lionsgate's Saw VI, Paramount's Paranormal Activity, and Universal's Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. Most box-office forecasters expect the latest Sawsequel to come out on top, but they're hedging their bets. Carl DiOrio, who covers the box office for the Hollywood Reporter is predicting a $30-million debut for Saw, which was not screened in advance for critics. However, he observes, "Paranormalhas been doing abnormally strong business, first in limited release and last weekend from a barely wide 760 playdates." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, box-office tracker Ben Fritz cites pre-release polls indicating that both films will likely sell about $25 million worth of tickets. "Saw VIhas been more aggressively marketed on television," he writes, "but Paranormal Activityhas generated much stronger word-of-mouth." In Daily Variety, Pamela McClintock notes that Saw VIhas the advantage of playing in about 3,200 theaters, while Paranormalis expanding to fewer than 2,000. "but franchise fatigue [for Saw] could be setting in," she comments, "especially in light of Paranormal's buzz." Cirque du Freak, based on a series of books targeting teenage boys, is not expected to offer much of a challenge. It's expected to do about $10 million in ticket sales. Also arriving this weekend is the PG-rated animated feature Astro Boy,which is also expected to take in around $10 million. But Fox Searchlight's Amelia, based on famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart has generated little advance buzz and is likely to collect only about $5 million. Another big question mark punctuates forecasts for last week's winner, Where the Wild Things Are.Most figure it will wind up with around $15-20 million.


Most critics have noted that Astro Boycontains little plot but plenty of action. Roger Ebert, who bestows three stars on the animated film, asks in his Chicago Sun-Timereview: "Has market research discovered our children are all laboring with attention deficits and can only absorb so many story elements before brightly colored objects distract them with deafening combat?" And make no mistake about it, Frank Lovece of Newsdayremarks, "Astro Boythe movie is strictly for small fry." On the other hand, Nancy Churnin advises in the Dallas Morning News: "Parents, don't nap while the kids watch. ... As with Where the Wild Things Areand Pixar's Up, this is another transformative tale that will leave your family with much to discuss and ponder in what is shaping up to be a golden era of family films." And Jane Horwitz concludes in the Washington Post: "The animated feature bristles with political allusions that only adults will get, but humor, action and vivid characters will carry kids along."


Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistantis receiving a lot of biting criticism from reviewers. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Timescalls it "a mess." Kyle Smith in the New York Postdismisses it as an "inept fantasy." Most note that it's aimed at teen boys, and Desson Thomas in the Washington Postadvises: "If serious, hard-core vampire movies for adults are the equivalent of spicy bloody marys, think of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant as a watered-down Shirley Temple. Glug it down and, after the sugar rush, little sense of fulfillment filters through your system."


The famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart may have been regarded as a fascinating figure and overdue for a movie about her, but most critics have not found this movie very fascinating at all. As Lou Lumenick comments in the New York Post: "Considering this is the first-ever theatrical biopic of Earhart, she deserves better." Claudia Puig in USA Todaysays that the problem is, "We don't get a sense of what propelled her to such courageous heights. Familiar platitudes, headline montages and voice-over pontificating bog down the story in superficiality." It's worse than that, says Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal. As played by Hillary Swank, he writes, "we get a protofeminist with a frozen smile spouting free-as-a-bird slogans from a bird-brained script. The film struggles to stay aloft, and may soon vanish, like its namesake, without a trace." And Michael O'Sullivan in the Washington Postadds: "Look, nobody's asking for a miniseries here, but at times the movie feels more like a History Channel documentary -- respectful to the point of reverential -- than a rip-snorting yarn."


Even as writers were remarking that Paranormal Activity, which reportedly cost about $15,000 to make (some reports put the figure at around $11,000), is likely to become the most profitable movie of the year -- and one of the most profitable of any year -- media researchers SNL Kagan were releasing results of a new study indicating that the movies with the biggest budgets -- $90 million or more -- are the ones that generate the greatest profit. The study, "Economics of Motion Pictures," found that the 83 films released between 2004 and 2008 with budgets greater than $100 million averaged $247.3 million in net profit. Those costing $90-100 million averaged $117.9 million in net profit. Animated films were the most profitable, averaging $220.5 million, followed by sci-fi films with an average of $125.4 million. The study also found that while ticket sales were up dramatically during the recession, DVD sales, which represents the studios' largest revenue source, fell $6.8 percent. Another study, by Digital Entertainment Group, put the DVD sales decline at 13.5 percent. The Los Angeles Timesreported today (Friday) that studios are considering a plan that would block rentals of DVDs for the first few weeks after they are released.


While sales figures for DVD and Blu-ray titles continue to fall, the number of subscribers to the Netflix online rental service is skyrocketing, the company reported Thursday. In just the last quarter, Netflix has added 510,000 subscribers, up 95 percent over the comparable quarter a year ago, bringing its total subscriber list to 11.1 million. Third quarter profit rose to $30 million, up 48 percent from the year-ago period, while revenue rose 24 percent to $423 million. The company attributed a substantial part of its success in the quarter to rising demand for its online streaming service. Netflix is now predicting that it will have as many as 12.3 million subscribers by the end of the year.