Holiday pix falling off tree

Challenges of the season rippling through yule pool

Here’s the bottom line on distribs’ year-end juggling: Some key weekends in November and December may prove a lot less crowded than expected.

Heavyweight pics, including Sony’s “Ali,” Universal’s “A Beautiful Mind” and Miramax’s “Gangs of New York” are shuffling dates, bringing fresh nightmares for studio marketing execs.

Just weeks ago, those same execs were fretting about how to make films stand out in a crush of competish. The crowding stemmed from last spring’s production surge fueled by Hollywood labor strife.

Now, it appears some upcoming frames could see an actual dearth of releases — and the tally of planned fourth-quarter wide releases (36) would rep a five-year low.

Consider the latest withdrawal symptoms:

  • MGM recently pulled its John Woo-helmed World War II drama “Windtalkers” from a Nov. 9 slot, partly over the fear that impending U.S. military action would hinder pic marketing.

    The move left 20th Century Fox’s Farrelly brothers laffer “Shallow Hal” as the frame’s only wide opener — until Warner Bros. moved actioner “Heist” from Oct. 19 to that Veterans Day sesh. Then Miramax bumped romantic laffer “On the Line” one week to Oct. 26, further thinning the once-crowded Oct. 19 ranks.

  • Sony has shifted its “Ali” biopic to Christmas Day, not long after DreamWorks’ wide release “The Time Machine” vacated the date. The “Ali” shift leaves only Warner Bros.’ ensemble laffer “Ocean’s Eleven” bowing wide Dec. 7.

    Following Sony’s move, U switched course on its Imagine co-venture “A Beautiful Mind.” The Russell Crowe drama helmed by Ron Howard will now go limited on Christmas Day, followed by a Jan. 4 wide launch.

  • The fate of “Gangs of New York” (until recently slated for a wide bow on Dec. 21) is still up in the air.

    Miramax co-topper Harvey Weinstein and helmer Martin Scorsese have been holding a few small test screenings of the cut to test audience response to the subject matter. Key scenes in the movie depict the violent draft riots of 1862, in which Americans fired on their fellow citizens. The action took place in downtown New York.

    “This was a troubled time,” Weinstein observes. “Are people who’ve lived through today’s troubled times prepared to deal with this material? That’s the question Marty and I are exploring.”

    One option is for Miramax to release the film in New York and Los Angeles for Oscar qualification and then hold wide release into 2002. Another possibility is to hold the film altogether for Cannes.

    Weinstein says release date strategy is the only issue under discussion. It’s understood the present length of the film is close to three hours, but Scorsese, who has final cut, still plans to do some trimming.

Meanwhile, some skedding plans appear written in indelible ink.

Disney has turned up the hype on its Nov. 2 release of Pixar co-production “Monsters, Inc.,” hoping a successful run for the toon will show the Mouse House’s resilience after its recent stock slide. Also, New Line is fully committed to a worldwide day-and-date bow of its tentpole “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings” on Dec. 19.

Still, speculation continues about further distrib fallout from the September tragedies.

At Universal, execs carefully studied the landscape and decided to stick with a Thanksgiving-week berth for Robert Redford starrer “Spy Game.”

“We’re all in unknown territory,” U vice chairman Marc Shmuger says. “… But I think the fundamentals of what makes a film an appealing proposition are the same.”

“Spy Game” is a relationship story of a mentor and his protege in the CIA that unfolds over several years and makes reference to certain Mideast difficulties. “We asked in our research, ‘Is this something you want to see?’ and the answer was a resounding ‘yes,’ ” Shmuger says.

Not that “Spy” is free of fallout from the current difficulties.

Pic now faces the prospect of an uncomfortable market position up against another Redford-toplined pic, DreamWorks’ “The Last Castle.” The latter was delayed one week to Oct. 19 after the terrorist attacks, so the prison drama likely still will be playing on thousands of screens when “Spy” opens wide Nov. 21.

Elsewhere, Paramount is committed to unspooling Cameron Crowe-helmed “Vanilla Sky” on Dec. 14. But the fate of a marketing campaign for the Tom-and-Penelope starrer will bear watching if the bombs start dropping in Afghanistan just as spots for the pricey romantic thriller hit the airwaves.

“The issues of marketing a movie in the current climate are pretty simple,” Par vice chairman Rob Friedman demurs. “We have to be sensitive to the material we’re showing, and we have to be cognizant of certain advertising opportunities being preempted. That just requires diligence, both on the creative side and the planning side. We have to be quick on our feet.”

Ganging up

The Dec. 21 weekend ranks as among the most crowded. As it mulls the plan for “Gangs,” Miramax recently moved the wide debut of Meg Ryan/Hugh Jackman starrer “Kate & Leopold” to Dec. 21.

Also bowing wide Dec. 21 is Fox’s Tim Allen starrer “Joe Somebody,” Par’s toon “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and Warners’ Jim Carrey-toplined “The Majestic.”

“We’re going, definitely,” Warners distrib topper Dan Fellman stresses. He also underscores a firm Nov. 16 slot for family fantasy “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Skedded for limited Christmas launches are Miramax’s “The Shipping News” and Disney’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” (“Shipping” is set to go wide Jan. 4, so its limited 2001 positioning is a clue to the distrib’s Oscar hopes this year.)

‘Ball’ bicoastal

But U remains committed to a wide Dec. 26 launch for urban laffer “How High.” Lions Gate’s “Monster’s Ball” — an ensemble drama with Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger and Sean Combs — unspools in L.A. and Gotham the same day.

Other anticipated bows in the waning days of December include New Line’s “I Am Sam,” USA’s “Gosford Park,” Lions Gate’s “Lantana” and Warners’ “Charlotte Gray.”

DreamWorks had hoped to unspool Tom Hanks starrer “Road to Perdition” on a limited number of Academy-qualifying screens in December, but pic won’t be ready for distribution until February at the earliest.

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