9 fall movie burning questions: Will Johnny Depp snap his losing streak? Can any holiday film survive 'Star Wars'?

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As the debris clears from summer movie explosions and superhero capes are sent to the dry cleaner, prestige and intrigue from fall's film offerings will start wafting over Hollywood like s'mores over a crackling fire.

From the turbulent brilliance of Steve Jobs to an optimistic refresh on Charles M. Schulz's beloved "Peanuts" comic strip, this crop of fall films raise certain questions.

Who is battling for box office and awards glory? What social themes are popular as we head into the holiday season? What on earth will become of Johnny Depp?

TheWrap reviews nine most burning questions in our Fall 2015 Movie Preview:


Warner Bros.

1. Can Johnny Depp snap his streak of commercial and critical misfires with "Black Mass"?

It's been four long years since Johnny Depp appeared in two back-to-back blockbusters, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and the adorable animated film "Rango." Since then, the star has appeared in "The Tourist," "The Rum Diary," "Dark Shadows," "The Lone Ranger," "Transcendence," "Into the Woods" and "Mortdecai." That is a brutal list, and while Depp's long-term prognosis is fine thanks to upcoming "Pirates" and "Alice in Wonderland" sequels, "Black Mass" will be a true test of his star power and acting chops these days.

Depp plays notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger under a ton of makeup and he looks positively chilling in the role, but it remains to be seen whether "Black Mass" will be the next "Departed" or the next "Gangster Squad" — both of which also hailed from Warner Bros. Depp appears to be in good hands with director Scott Cooper, who surrounded his A-list star with a very strong supporting cast, and the trailers have been great, but the film opens against Universal's "Everest" and Fox's "Maze Runner" sequel. This one is too close to call, but the odds of a comeback with critics and fans are in Depp's favor. We're excited to see him change it up from swashbuckling hero to psychotic criminal.

steve jobs
2. Can "Steve Jobs," the biopic about the late Apple Inc. co-founder, possibly be as intriguing as the back story of the film's development?

Just after Ashton Kutcher's indie film "Jobs" flatlined, David Fincher was set to direct Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Walter Isaacson's bio for Sony, and he wanted Christian Bale as the lead. Fincher and the studio couldn't reach a deal so in came Danny Boyle, who wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play the prickly, turtleneck-wearing tech pioneer. When DiCaprio chose "The Revenant" instead, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were all considered — before Bale got the gig again.

About that time, as "The Interview" star Seth Rogen began talks to play co-founder Steve Wozniak. Then hackers leaked an email exchange between SPE chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin, who called Angelina Jolie a "minimally talented spoiled brat" for trying to poach Fincher for her "Cleopatra" remake.

The emails also revealed that Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron had all met with the studio about roles in the film, too. Soon after, Bale fell out and Sony dropped the project. Universal swooped in, cast chameleonic actor Michael Fassbender in the lead. "Steve Jobs" may be the untold story of the man behind the global digital revolution, but it will have to go some to top the saga of its journey to the big screen.

LGBT Movies 2015
3. Will the glut of LGBT-themed indies this fall — including "Stonewall," "Freeheld," "Carol," and "The Danish Girl" — cancel each other out for awards and box office consideration?

The numerous dramas centering on the lives and struggles of LGBT characters across decades are encouraging in a social context — but will they wind up cannibalizing each other for ticket sales and golden trophies? "Carol," a Cannes sensation and period film about the romantic entanglement between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, may rise to the surface thanks to festival buzz and star power. "The Danish Girl," boasts an Oscar-winning director (Tom Hooper) and star (Eddie Redmayne) in a topical true story about one of a transgender woman in the early 20th century who underwent one of the first sex reassignment surgeries.

While "Freeheld" stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as real-life domestic partners fighting for survivor benefits in the days before same-sex marriage was legal, director Peter Sollett ("Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist") is a less well known. And "Godzilla" and "White House Down" director Roland Emmerich is far outside his usual big-budget comfort zone with "Stonewall," a low-budget retelling of the 1969 New York City riots that helped spark the modern gay rights movement.

scouts v zombies
4. Is Paramount's experiment with a reduced theatrical window — the period in which a movie is in theaters and can't be distributed on DVD or digitally — the dawn of a new era, or a way to scare up interest in two small-potatoes horror movies?

Hollywood knows that consumers, especially young ones, are increasingly forsaking movie theaters for digital downloads and other online fare. But rather than wholeheartedly go that route, the studios have been trying to preserve the status quo and the joy of seeing a movie with a crowd in a theater. Theater owners see the handwriting on the wall and fiercely protect their "window" of exclusivity, or at least they did until last month.

That's when Paramount split with its studio brethren and brokered a deal with AMC Theaters and Cineplex Enertainment to allow the DVD and download release of two October films, "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension" and "Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," just 17 days after they leave most theaters — rather than the traditional 90. Will consumers just wait to download them and skip the theaters? Will both the theatrical and home entertainment runs be compromised? Will anyone but theater owners and teen horror fans even notice?

Jennifer Lawrence Bond
5. Which breakup will be more bitter, Lionsgate bidding farewell to Jennifer Lawrence and "The Hunger Games" franchise or Sony saying goodbye to MGM and James Bond after "Spectre"?

Parting can be box office sorrow when it comes to tentpole franchises and studios. The global domination of "The Hunger Games" infused Lionsgate with cash and put megastar Jennifer Lawrence on the map. It also perfected the model set by Summit Entertainment (a Lionsgate acquisition) on 'The Twilight Saga" in adapting a young-adult book series into a lucrative film franchise. Lionsgate still has another movie left in the Shailene Woodley-led "Divergent" series, counts "The Expendables' action romp on its slate and will attempt to drive nostalgia with a "Power Rangers" reboot. But the "Hunger Games" is a serious loss.

Is it remotely more significant, though, than Sony's likely loss of James Bond? MGM's distribution deal, in place since Daniel Craig first donned the tux in 2006's "Casino Royale," is set to expire with this November's "Spectre." The partnership has benefited everyone — director Sam Mendes' last installment, "Skyfall," earned Oscars as well as $1.1 billion in worldwide grosses. MGM has teamed with virtually every major studio in recent years, though Warner Bros. is thought to be a front-runner to take over the lucrative 007 distribution gig.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

6. Will "The Peanuts Movie" play for kids that didn't grow up with Charlie Brown and the gang?

The "Peanuts" comic strip by Charles M. Schultz ran from 1950 to 2000 — so modern kids may be less familiar with Charlie Brown and Snoopy beyond the Christmas TV special and MetLife commercials. However, nostalgia has been a big factor in recent studio greenlights — just look at the reboots of Gen X properties like "Jem and the Holograms" and "Point Break." And "The Peanuts Movie" is clearly targeting both grown-ups as well as their children to reinvigorate a familiar set of characters for a new generation.



7. Can Will Smith get his groove back with "Concussion" after a string of big-screen disappointments?

Since 2009, Will Smith has starred in three films and played an ill-advised supporting role as Lucifer in Akiva Goldsman's directorial debut "Winter's Tale," which bombed. Smith took four years off between 2008's critically maligned drama "Seven Pounds" and 2012's "Men in Black 3," which performed well overseas but showed some franchise fatigue at the domestic box office, where it was the lowest-grossing film in the series.

His other two movies were "After Earth," which tripled its domestic gross overseas but still lost money and was savaged by critics and fans alike, and this year's con-man caper "Focus," which earned a 'B' CinemaScore and grossed only $53 million in the U.S. When did America stop supporting one of its biggest homegrown movie stars, and why? For starters, his choices have been less than inspiring, though next summer's "Suicide Squad" looks like a dynamite return to form.

Which brings us to "Concussion," a movie about the NFL's well-publicized head-injury scandal that turns a critical eye towards the league's stance towards player safety. On paper, it's a solid, awards-bait role for Smith, who plays the heavily accented forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who brought the issue to the NFL's attention.

But the film faces several challenges. While Smith is decidedly more popular with foreign audiences these days, there isn't much interest overseas in American football. Sony may also have a tough time booking ads during NFL games, forcing the studio to reach that same audience in other ways. And the film also opens on Christmas Day against five other big releases — as well as the second weekend of expected juggernaut "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Those are a lot of challenges for a serious drama to, well, tackle.


Warner Bros.

8. Which under-the-radar fall movie could come out of nowhere to become an Oscar contender?

You can't always judge a movie by its trailer, but sometimes, you can. Patricia Riggen's drama "The 33," about the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, looks absolutely fantastic and has the backing of a major studio in Warner Bros. that doesn't have another surefire awards contender. If "Black Mass" and "Creed" don't live up to their marketing hype, don't be surprised if WB gets behind this miraculous true story in a big way. Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips look particularly powerful, and the film also boasts one of the last scores from late composer James Horner.

9. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is the only movie coming out over the holidays, right?

Contrary to what you may have heard, no. Christmas Day is typically crowded with six films opening, and several will provide worthwhile alternatives to Disney's Lucasfilm blockbuster-to-be, which some analysts believe could top $2 billion at the global box office.

Universal recently scheduled the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy "Sisters" on the "Star Wars" release date of Dec. 18 — hoping to attract older or female audiences turned off by the sci-fi mania. Just in time for Chanukah, give the studio an award for chutzpah.

While "Star Wars" is expected to dominate the box office well after its opening weekend, rival studios still plan to release a glut of competitors on Christmas Day. The projects include director David O. Russell's "Joy" with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro; Sony's NFL drama "Concussion" with Will Smith; Paramount's Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg comedy "Daddy's Home;" Warner Bros.' "Point Break" remake; Oliver Stone's Wikileaks drama "Snowden" starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Quentin Tarantino's latest Western, "The Hateful Eight" (the latter in limited release). At least a couple of these may manage to find an audience despite the glare from clashing lightsabers.

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