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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Boy wizard Harry Potter won't be whipping up his magic when the fall film season begins next week, but Hollywood is hoping momentum from summer hits like "The Dark Knight" and a wide mix of new movies will keep audiences happy into the holidays.
Two weeks ago, Warner Bros. yanked "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from a November release and pushed it to next July, which could spell trouble at box offices because the previous four "Potter" films averaged $920 million in worldwide ticket sales. That is a lot of movie magic.
But a range of films from broad comedies such as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" to thrillers like "Eagle Eye" and art house fare including "Flash of Genius" could sustain the summer upswing, studio executives and box office watchers said.
"You've got it all," said Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracker Media By Numbers, when assessing the outlook from September through mid-November, when the new James Bond flick, "Quantum of Solace," kicks off holiday season moviegoing.
Last year, Hollywood also came off a strong summer after raking in a record $4.18 billion in North American receipts, but then came a slate filled with war films such as "In the Valley of Elah" and dark dramas that tanked at box offices.
When the summer movie season officially ends on Monday's U.S. Labor Day holiday, box office watchers again expect a summer tally of over $4 billion. A good chunk of that comes from the blockbuster Batman sequel "The Dark Knight."
This fall Hollywood seems to have learned a lesson from its bleak 2007 as it dishes up such light-hearted entries as Joel and Ethan Coen's wacky new comedy "Burn After Reading" starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney; the animated sequel "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"; and Disney's latest teen confection, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year."
On a more serious note, Clint Eastwood provocative thriller, "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich, will also make its commercial debut.
"Part of the reason the summer was successful is that most studios made a lot of films people really loved, and it is a great comment on the power of films that even in bad economic times, audiences come to theaters for good movies," said Adam Fogelson, marketing chief for Universal Pictures.
Of course, the question for movie fans is: "what is good?," and that question has as many answers as there are films.
For clues, cineastes should watch the current and upcoming film festivals in Venice, Toronto and Telluride, Colorado -- major launch pads for movies looking to garner good reviews.
Last year, the Coen brothers went into Telluride with clips from "No Country for Old Men," and came out with good buzz that propelled the movie to Oscars for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay. Teenage pregnancy comedy "Juno" was a hit at Toronto in 2007, and three years ago gay cowboy drama "Brokeback Mountain" won the top prize at Venice.
This year the Coen comedy "Burn After Reading," which stars Pitt as hyperactive gym teacher who attempts to extort money from a former CIA analyst, divided some critics at Venice but will have a chance to wow a new group of reviewers at Toronto.
Other September and October releases winning early buzz are director Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna," about four black American soldiers caught behind enemy lines during World War II, and "Appaloosa," a crime thriller set in the Old West directed by Ed Harris, starring Viggo Mortensen and Harris.
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have paired up as a couple of New York City cops in "Righteous Kill," and Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe appear together in "Body of Lies."
Finally, there is the drama "Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys," and on the lighter side, "Ghost Town," starring British comedian Ricky Gervais as a man who can see ghosts, and "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," about two teenagers who find love.