Inside Move: Sony, WB in the ring again

Duo to send heavyweights out in December

HOLLYWOOD — Warner Bros. and Sony are headed for a December encore of their head-to-head faceoff over the July Fourth holiday in 2000.

Based on early tracking, a vast majority of distrib execs believe the matchup of Warners’ “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ali” (a co-venture with Initial Entertainment Group distribbed domestically by Sony) could go to Warners, just as the last one did.

In 2000, “The Perfect Storm” stomped “The Patriot” in a memorable summer showdown between mega-budget event pics. Emboldened by stellar tracking, Sony held firm to its date and later got flack for its stubborn stance.

There is plenty of second-guessing now about the “Godzilla”-like plan for “Ali.” Many distribs and B.O. observers wonder whether the issue-oriented, Michael Mann-directed biopic could fare better with a slower rollout.

Mann’s previous pic, “The Insider,” brought similar heat on Disney in 1999. It went wide after just one week in limited release, grossing a mere $29 million in the U.S. despite seven Oscar noms, including one for best picture.

Unlike “Ocean’s” helmer Steven Soderbergh, the town’s hottest director with two $100 million hits in 2000, Mann’s commercial high came in 1992 with a $75.5 million take for “The Last of the Mohicans.” Soderbergh also will be packing a serious star wallop, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon among those remaking the Rat Pack pic.

The dilemma for Sony is twofold. First, the studio is trying to balance the TLC a $106 million, Mann-directed film needs with the opening-weekend splash befitting a $20 million star such as Will Smith. Unless they’re in a supporting role (e.g. Tom Cruise in “Magnolia”), A-listers are accustomed to opening wide.

Second, a slower platform strategy is a risk around the holidays, especially with prestige pics “A Beautiful Mind,” “Gangs of New York” and “Road to Perdition” ticketed for this year’s ultra-packed late December. Sony got a taste of the late-year logjam last year with “Finding Forrester.” The drama performed admirably, winding up with $51 million, but got overshadowed by more spectacular rollouts such as “Chocolat” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

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