Trilogy, franchise pix slated for holiday openings

Finding a viable release date is one of the toughest tasks in Hollywood. Studios must focus not only on their own pics but on all chess pieces on the board.

But in a new twist on the dating game, both of this holiday season’s key pieces — “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” — have already had an impact on next November and December, and possibly the 2003 holidays.

New Line’s “Rings” trilogy has long been skedded for three consecutive Christmases. Warner Bros. has claimed next Nov. 15

for its “Harry Potter” follow-up, which just started lensing. Such long lead time is unusual for mega-franchises — “Star Wars” may be the only other one to scare rivals away by announcing its date a year or more in advance.

The issue for 2002 and perhaps 2003 is whether other contenders will be able to find profitable seams in between the tentpoles, as Disney’s “Monsters, Inc.” and “Spy Game” already have. (The Mouse House, lest anyone forget, owned Thanksgiving throughout the 1990s.)

“Going around those specific dates will be tough,” said Jim Tharp, distrib chief at DreamWorks, which is eyeing next holiday season for “Catch Me If You Can.” “The third part of a franchise doesn’t typically do as well as the sequel, but this is also a different situation because of the lack of time in between the films.”

Complicating matters further, Warners may throw a third heavyweight franchise into the mix: The studio is mulling a provocative alternate route for 2003 that would offer only six months in between its upcoming “Matrix” installments. Distrib prexy Dan Fellman says he hopes to launch the second and third “Matrix” pics in May and November and push the third “Potter” into 2004. “We may want to take more of a break,” said Fellman.

The burning question: Will audiences?

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