Big pix crowd holiday but B.O. might get lost in mix

Competition this Christmas is fiercer than ever — a dozen or so films, counting limited bows, will have opened by Friday — and anxious industry execs are sitting by their phones (or logging on to online services) hoping for good news about their holiday movie offerings.

And, despite their best efforts, some will find coal in their stockings.

As if that weren’t bad enough, grosses are expected to be down for the holiday period because the actual holiday falls on a Friday. Any exhib can tell you the ideal scenario for biz occurs when Christmas and New Year’s days fall midweek, and moviegoing has the potential for hearty, virtually unimpeded returns for two weeks.

“The worst holiday alignment occurs when Christmas falls on a Friday,” said a rep for a major chain. “For starters, it means regular working stiffs don’t get those extra holiday days. But it also configures so that there’s greater pressure on weekends, unrelieved by the siphoning off that would normally occur midweek.”

(The last time Christmas fell on a Friday was 1992 when “A Few Good Men” and “Aladdin” led the field and overall holiday biz declined by 10% from the prior year).

There are an unusually high number of pictures opening Christmas Day: Disney unleashes “Mighty Joe Young”; Universal checks in with “Patch Adams”; Sony brings out the hankies with “Stepmom”; and Miramax pulls out the stops with the horror pic “The Faculty.”

Limited crowd

And that’s simply the roster of wide releases. If you live in New York or L.A., you can also check out John Travolta as the “good” lawyer in “A Civil Action,” the black American slice-of-lifer “Down in the Delta,” get inside Hollywood for “Hurlyburly,” go to war in “The Thin Red Line,” ride the range in “The Hi-Lo Country,” enjoy the offbeat romance of “The Theory of Flight,” untangle the heart strings in “Playing by Heart” or opt for such high-brow fare as the biopic “Hilary and Jackie,” the searing family drama “Affliction,” the con game of “The Swindle” from France or Spain’s genre drama “Day of the Beast.”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that last-minute Christmas shoppers probably have yet to catch up with “You’ve Got Mail,” “Star Trek: Insurrection,” “The Prince of Egypt” or other early December premieres.

“I think it’s going to be a very big holiday season,” enthused Walt Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Dick Cook. “But it’s obviously going to be a shorter play period, and it will unfold like a competition of the survival of the fittest.”

The early 1998 holiday season has already taken a step back from industry efforts to expand peak play time during the closing months of the year. Last weekend’s business experienced a 30% erosion from the comparable period of 1997 and even with potent upcoming titles, the likelihood of diminished midweek biz is almost certain.

The reason it has unfolded in this manner has a lot to do with three factors: The Friday holiday configuration and the availability and type of product.

For the majors, Thanksgiving is now generally the favored launch of its family product, and Christmas is reserved for films likely to get a boost from end-of-the-year prizes handed out by critics groups. So such pics as “A Bug’s Life,” “The Rugrats Movie” and “Babe: Pig in the City” staked out November with hopes of weathering early December B.O. doldrums and getting a second wind when school recessed midmonth. Only “The Prince of Egypt,” “Jack Frost” and “Mighty Joe Young” have been added to the mix of movies aimed at that crowd.

Movie dilemma

The dilemma for exhibs and distribs continues to be the first two weeks of December. Post-Thanksgiving weekend box office routinely drops by 50% as the American public’s attention shifts to holiday gift buying, family dinner preparations and travel.

Most distribs don’t want to roll the dice during the fortnight on one of their big pictures. Warner Bros. took the leap in 1994 with “Disclosure” and racked up a respectable $10 million opening weekend but the studio felt its $83 cume was shy of its full potential. Universal had a comparable debut for “Daylight” in 1996, but it tapped out at $33 million.

However, last year Miramax preemed “Scream 2″ on Dec. 12 to $33 million (the original, a late December ’96 entry, opened with $6.4 million) and rewrote the record book.

Paramount’s “Star Trek: Insurrection” with a $22 million opening weekend, though weaker, certainly eased the transition between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. But insiders at Paramount aren’t convinced that strategy worked because the pic’s second weekend fell by 62% in the face of the pre-Christmas duo of “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Prince of Egypt.”

Ironically, those two films were initially scheduled to debut Dec. 25 but were pushed forward a week to avoid the Christmas Day crunch. The upcoming frame will signal whether getting into the marketplace seven days early will give “Mail” an edge against similarly aimed and star-driven vehicles as “Patch Adams” and “Stepmom” and whether “The Prince” will prevail over family pic “Mighty Joe Young.”

The horror, the horror

The wild card in the mix is “The Faculty,” which, like “Scream” in 1996, appeals to the teen market unserved by the other debuting titles. Should the tale of lethal teachers have crossover power, it could seriously re-shape holiday viewing patterns. However, early industry response lacked the necessary shout.

Tracking leading into the frame looks strongest for “Patch Adams” among newcomers and for “You’ve Got Mail” and “A Bug’s Life” among continuing runs.

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