It used to be that you could pretty much predict the kinds of movies you were going to see at a particular time of year. In the past, the movie-release calendar had two seasons: the blockbuster season -- Christmas and summer -- and the offseason. The summer was traditionally designated as the time for mindless comedies and other unchallenging fluff and Christmas as the spot for big star entertainments, while the winter, spring and fall were reserved for films that required more careful handling and a less competitive environment.
But these days things aren't that simple. Though the calendar hasn't been completely tossed away, movies are blooming everywhere out of season, and just about anything goes.
According to the old guidelines, the fall and early winter were the times for the hard-to-classify, the more subdued, more subtle films. Up to a point, this year is no exception. It's the season for movies from England -- such as Merchant and Ivory's "Maurice" or Stephen Frears' "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" -- or the films from Europe that trickle down from the New York Film Festival; for the high-tone culture picture, such as "Dancers," with Mikhail Baryshnikov; the modest comedy like Frank Perry's "Hello Again," or the lower-key fantasy like Rob Reiner's "The Princess Bride." Plays that have been made into films -- such as Lyle Kessler's "Orphans" or Paul Newman's production of "The Glass Menagerie" -- and other ventures by literary types such as David Mamet ("House of Games") or Norman Mailer ("Tough Guys Don't Dance") also find the cooler weather more compatible.
But there are other films, both at Christmas time and in the fall, that defy tradition. Tossaway comedies like "Throw Mama From the Train" or "Eddie Murphy Raw" will break the pattern by venturing out into the Christmas cold. And what's a Robin Williams comedy like "Good Morning, Vietnam" or John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," with John Candy and Steve Martin, doing out in the brisk and frosty air?
The answer, according to Mark Johnson, producer of "Good Morning, Vietnam," is that the old rules no longer strictly apply. "The current philosophy seems to be that if you have a good picture, it will do well anytime," he says. "A kid picture would still be a summer film, but beyond that a Christmas or summer release just isn't as important as it used to be."
But Jonathan Taplin, who produced, among other things, "Mean Streets" and "Under Fire," says smaller, independent films still must pick their slots carefully. "The independents have to sneak their films into theaters during the late summer or early fall, or perhaps early in the year, before the majors start flooding the market around Thanksgiving," he says. "For the big blockbusters -- the Eddie Murphy or Steven Spielberg films -- you still can't beat the summer or Christmas seasons, when the kids are out of school and can go to the theater on Tuesday night."
This Christmas season, too, proves to be more serious than usual with movies such as Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," and "Ironweed" scheduled to premiere at holiday time. Taplin likes the new, looser trend, though, and what it indicates to him is that there is perhaps a broader range of films in release and, to accommodate them, a more creative, less rigid approach is called for. He doesn't expect to see a Bond film in October but, he says, "That a movie like 'Roxanne' can come out in early June and do well is a healthy sign."
Diversity, in other words, is what we can expect this season. Here's a partial guide:
SEPTEMBER: The Fall season gets underway with "Flashdance" director Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction," a dramatic thriller starring Michael Douglas as a happily married lawyer who is seduced by a publishing executive (Glenn Close). It's no ordinary one-night stand, but the beginning of a pathological nightmare for Douglas and his wife (Anne Archer).
Matt Dillon encounters seductive women, not to mention big-time gamblers, in "The Big Town," a coming-of-age movie based on a '50s song by Ronnie Self. Dillon, a small-time crapshooter, leaves Rockport, Ill., with his mentor to take on the major die-casters in Chicago.
"Pretty in Pink's" Jon Cryer will try a dramatic role in "Dudes." Penelope Spheeris directs Cryer as a New York street tough who heads west to start a new life, an odyssey that costars Catherine Mary Stuart and Daniel Roebuck.
Matthew Modine of "Full Metal Jacket" returns in the drama "Orphans," based on a critically acclaimed play by Lyle Kessler, who also wrote the screenplay. Modine convinces his kid brother (Kevin Anderson) that he will die if he ventures outside their decaying house in Newark. Albert Finney, as a kidnaped gangster, is an unlikely father figure. Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men") directs.
Jim Belushi has two movies this fall -- first, as the title character in the contemporary drama "The Principal," set in a northeastern high school with serious racial problems. Rae Dawn Chong and Louis Gossett Jr. costar and Christopher Cain directs. Belushi then plays a macho CIA agent who is ordered to kidnap and escort a wimp civilian (John Ritter) across the country in five days in "Real Men," an action comedy that marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dennis Feldman ("The Golden Child").
Molly Ringwald stars in "The Pick-Up Artist," a romantic comedy about a compulsive womanizer (Robert Downey) who meets his match when he encounters her. The movie was written and directed by James Toback.
"The Princess Bride," directed by Rob Reiner, is a comic tale of true love and high adventure that begins in the room of a bedridden boy who is visited by his story-telling grandfather. The ancient's magical words conjure up giants, monsters, heroes and villains. Peter Falk and Mandy Patinkin costar. William Goldman wrote the screenplay based on his bestselling novel.
Norman Mailer adapted himself in "Tough Guys Don't Dance." Ryan O'Neal plays a drunk who sobers up after a binge and finds himself in the middle of a complex murder mystery. Isabella Rossellini plays his one true love in what Mailer calls "a horror film in the form of a tough-guy thriller."
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, the team responsible for "A Room With a View," offer the gay romance "Maurice," in which two college boys share a romantic but chaste friendship at Cambridge in 1911.
Also in September, the Irish gem "Eat the Peach," Wayne Wang's new-wave thriller "Slamdance" and the John Landis comedy "Amazon Women From the Moon" come to town.
OCTOBER: Greetings of the season include John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness," a fright-night thriller about a group of grad students who unwittingly help the priest of an obscure sect ward off the Devil. Elsewhere, a creature called "Pumkinhead" menaces a group of teen-agers.
On a higher plane, Shelley Long stars in the ghost story "Hello Again." Long dies during an appendicitis attack but is revived later by Judith Ivey, her occultist sister. Long must deal with the changes that have occurred since her death, including her husband's remarriage.
Diane Keaton also gets back down to earth in "Baby Boom" after her directorial debut with "Heaven." She plays a New York management consultant who lives with the quintessential yuppie (Harold Ramis). Then he ups and deserts her when a relative dies and leaves her with a 14-month-old orphan. Sam Shepard plays her new boyfriend.
Sally Field is coming back after a two-year break in "Surrender," a romance costarring Michael Caine. She's a struggling artist and he's the toast of the literary world, and both are miserable until they fall in love.
Whoopi Goldberg plays another tough gal in "Fatal Beauty," an action adventure in which she plays a wisecracking cop out to rid the city of designer drugs. The script is cowritten by "Dirty Harry" screenwriter Dean Reisner.
In "Weeds," Nick Nolte is a convict who redeems himself by writing a stark play about prison life. Lane Smith is the woman reporter who campaigns for his release.
Charlie Sheen plays a car-theft kingpin who is up against undercover cop D. B. Sweeney in "No Man's Land," an action-adventure produced by Ron Howard. Lawrence Kasdan of "The Big Chill" and "Silverado" is the producer here but surfaces again as a director of "Cross My Heart," a romantic comedy with Martin Short. The "SCTV/SNL" alum and Annette O'Toole play not-so-swinging singles on their critical third date.
Another "Saturday Night Live" grad, Anthony Michael Hall, stars in "Quarterback Sneak," a contemporary comedy about a high school football hero who is tempted by unscrupulous college recruiters.
"Big Shots" is a comedy-adventure about a couple of fatherless preteens from contrasting cultures -- inner city and suburbia.
Taylor Hackford of "White Knights" directs "Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll," which chronicles Chuck Berry's triumph back when the rock music business was in its cradle.
In a more serious vein, John Huston's last film "The Dead," based on the James Joyce story, starring Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann, and written by Tony Huston, will premiere.
Gregory Nava of "El Norte" returns to directing with "Destiny," a World War II-era story about a young Basque couple in Los Angeles. William Hurt, Stockard Channing and Timothy Hutton are the principals. Also director John Boorman ("The Emerald Forest") offers his autobiographical World War II story "Hope and Glory," the tale of a middle-class English family as seen through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy. Sarah Miles stars as the mother.
"Positive I.D.," written and directed by former film professor Andy Anderson, focuses on a different sort of tough, a brooding housewife who takes on a new identity to avenge her rape.
Also in October: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Herbert Ross ("The Turning Point") team up again in "Dancer," and "Matewan," John Sayles' film about union violence in the '20s in West Virginia, opens, as does Nikita Mikhalkov's "Dark Eyes," starring Marcello Mastroianni, who won the best actor prize at Cannes, and "The Whales of August," directed by Lindsay Anderson, and starring Lillian Gish and Bette Davis.
NOVEMBER: Sir Richard Attenborough ("Gandhi") directs and coproduces the controversial "Cry Freedom," a true story about South African civil rights leader Steve Biko, played by Denzel Washington. Kevin Kline also stars as a newspaper reporter who decides to meet Biko and learn first-hand about the black struggle against apartheid.
Another Englishman, Ridley Scott ("Alien"), is back with a domestic drama called "Someone to Watch Over Me." Here Tom Berenger ("Platoon") plays a happily married cop who is assigned to watch over a beautiful material witness (Mimi Rogers).
Adolescent girls wind up in the care of their off-the-wall aunt in Scottish director Bill Forsyth's latest movie, "Housekeeping." Christine Lahti stars as Aunt Sylvie, a loner who is suddenly made guardian of her sister's kids following their mother's suicide.
Cher and Dennis Quaid costar in "Suspect," a whodunit directed by Peter Yates. Cher is a public defender who tampers with juror Quaid during a murder case she's trying.
Four teens are featured in "Promised Land," a bittersweet story of life after high school and a search for the American dream. Kiefer Sutherland, Meg Ryan, Jason Gedrick and Tracy Pollan are the searchers.
More kids come to "The Rescue" in an action-adventure from Disney. Kevin Dillon leads a group of Navy brats to the rescue when a squadron of Seals is taken hostage by North Koreans and the government refuses to intervene.
And the title heroine in "Cinderella" searches again for happiness amid the ashes when Disney rereleases the animated classic at Thanksgiving.
TV teen idol Michael Knight of "All My Children" finds an angel with a broken wing in his back-yard pool in "Date With an Angel." Emmanuelle Beart, who plays the angel, also stars in "Manon of the Springs," the sequel to "Jean de Florette," which the Key Theater hopes to premiere over the holiday weekend.
Jon Cryer gets an "Adult Education" when he stars as a young stockbroker who testifies against a major crime boss. Then it's back to high school to assume a new identity. Other kid stuff includes "Teen Wolf Too." Jason Bateman stars.
Marek Kanievska's ("Another Country") adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel "Less Than Zero" teams Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and Robert Downey as three friends finding their way down the fast lane in Beverly Hills.
Alan Rudolph ("Choose Me") goes off on a tangent in "Made in Heaven," a fantasy with Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis as soul mates whose celestial romance turns into an eternity together. Ellen Barkin has a bit part as the Devil, but has the starring role as a daredevil in "Siesta," a drama about a woman flirting with death. Gabriel Byrne, Isabella Rossellini, Jodie Foster and Julian Sand costar.
Alex Cox, the director of "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy," is premiering the historical biography "Walker," shot in Nicaragua. Ed Harris has the title role of renegade William Walker, an American who seized power in that Central American country in 1853. Marlee Matlin plays his mistress.
William Friedkin ("The Exorcist") writes and directs the action-thriller "Rampage," with Michael Biehn as a lawyer up against Alex McArthur as a serial killer. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also back in action as "The Running Man," a cop fighting to expose government corruption.
And John Hughes, the teen auteur, directs the comedy "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," with John Candy as a traveling salesman and Steve Martin as an advertising executive on their way home for the holidays during a midwestern blizzard.
DECEMBER: Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep ("Heartburn") are reunited for William Kennedy's adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Ironweed," a down-and-out drama directed by Hector Babenco ("Kiss of the Spider Woman").
Oliver Stone, the director of "Platoon," turns his camera on "Wall Street." Charlie Sheen, the innocent soldier of "Platoon," plays an innocent young broker who is corrupted by Michael Douglas.
"Tin Men" director Barry Levinson takes over in the trenches with the "sometimes" comedy "Good Morning, Vietnam." Robin Williams stars as an offbeat deejay who buoys the war-weary with his cheery broadcasts, until he sees the war firsthand and truly begins to understand the devastation.
Tom Hanks and Sally Field also mix comedy with drama in "Punchline," a sobering look at the insecure, sometimes depressing world of stand-up comedy.
Other Christmas comedians get down to actual funny business. "Eddie Murphy Raw" is a ribald concert movie directed by Robert Townsend. Then Bill Cosby is back in the spy business in "Leonard Part VI," a spoof of movie sequels directed by Paul Weiland.
Leonard Nimoy directs Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg and Tom Selleck in "Three Men and a Baby," a remake of the French film "Three Men and a Cradle," in which macho housemates foster father an abandoned baby girl.
Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell will play an amnesia victim and a man who claims to be her husband in "Overboard."
James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment") is back with "Broadcast News," a poignant romance with William Hurt and Holly Hunter, which was filmed on location in Washington. Albert Brooks also stars.
Danny DeVito debuts as a director in "Throw Momma From the Train," a dark comedy costarring himself and Billy Crystal. DeVito plays an aspiring mystery writer with a suffocating mother, and Crystal is a writing teacher whose ex-wife stole his novel and became a best-selling author.
Judge Reinhold swaps identities with his 11-year-old son in "Vice Versa," and Dan Aykroyd, playing an escaped mental patient, trades places with a Beverly Hills psychologist (Charles Grodin) in "Couch Trip."
Barbra Streisand is just plain "Nuts," which isn't funny -- it's an adaptation of a play by Tom Topor about a woman who must prove her mental competence in court. Martin Ritt ("Norma Rae") directs and Richard Dreyfuss costars as the heroine's court-appointed attorney.
It's probably crazy -- Bruce Willis is teaming up with Blake Edwards again after the debacle "Blind Date." This time Edwards directs and writes a period piece called "Sunset," which stars Willis as Tom Mix and James Garner as Wyatt Earp. The two meet when Mix is cast in a silent movie version of Earp's life story.
Steven Spielberg produces a variation on "A Christmas Carol" directed by Matthew Robbins. It's a magical tale that takes place in an inner-city tenement that is to be demolished under the orders of a Scroogey landlord. Then Spielberg both produces and directs "Empire of the Sun," the dramatic story of an English schoolboy who spends time in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.
Italian director Ettore Scola offers "The Family," a nostalgic story of an 80-year-old patriarch who looks back on his life during a birthday celebration. It stars Vittorio Gassman, Phillipe Noiret and Amy Ardent.
And to top off the season, "September," Woody Allen's latest film, stars Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Diane Keaton. Beyond that it's anybody's guess. We don't even know whether it's in black and white or color.