Holiday scramble

Studios shopping for release dates

Studios are scrambling to take advantage of the most valuable real estate on the release calendar — the two weekends bracketing Christmas.

In some last-minute release-date jockeying, Fox has pushed “The Flight of the Phoenix” up from Christmas to Dec. 17, where it will open against Sony’s “Spanglish” and Paramount’s “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

Move takes advantage of Miramax’s decision to push the wide release of “The Aviator” from Dec. 17 to ultra-competitive Dec. 25, where it will face off against Universal’s “Meet the Fockers,” Disney’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” Fox’s “Fat Albert” and Warner Bros.’ “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Darkness.”

“Aviator” still will bow Dec. 17 in limited release on around 25 screens in Gotham, L.A. and vacation towns for awards voters including Aspen, Colo.; Park City, Utah; and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Miramax said it moved the wide bow of “Aviator” to allow word of mouth to generate from the limited shows. The studio is waging an awards campaign for helmer Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio, among others.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands. “Christmas is obviously a huge week, and we’re opening the 17th to establish the movie and get reviews out.”

Fox voices similar logic in its decision to bring “Phoenix” out Dec. 17 as well. “We’d like to get a little traction going before we come out into the (wide) marketplace,” said Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder.

Jockeying for position on Dec. 17 has been particularly intense this year because of the vacuum created by the completion of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. For the last three years, “Rings” has dominated the weekend before Christmas, forcing other studios to sit back and counterprogram with awards-hopeful fare like “Gangs of New York” or “Mona Lisa Smile.”

“Aviator,” “Lemony Snicket” and “Spanglish” have all been camped on Dec. 17 for months in a game of release-schedule chicken, with some speculation among distrib execs that someone would blink.

But as the calendar has settled, Christmas has become the more competitive period, with five wide releases now set for that weekend. (“Phantom” is due to bow in about 600 theaters before going wider in January.)

Christmas falls on a Saturday this year, which hurts the movie biz. “The worst calendar you can come up with is Christmas on a Saturday,” said Fox’s Snyder.

The first problem is that Christmas Eve, never a good day for box office, falls on an otherwise lucrative Friday. Christmas Eve is so weak for theaters that many close for the day, which is why most pics are opening on Christmas rather than the day before.

Also, the Christmas boost for receipts will be minimized, since the holiday falls on what is already the best day of the week for exhibs.

By comparison, last year’s holiday biz set records with Christmas falling on a Thursday, since it created a stretch of 11 days between Christmas and the Sunday after New Year’s Day that performed like weekend days.

This year, the week before Christmas may be where the most opportunity is, since kids will start going on school vacations on Monday, Dec. 20.

Par distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen said the studio skedded “Snicket” on Dec. 17 on the expectation that kids would be on break. “That date is perfect for a family film. On Monday, about 60% of schools are out, and it grows through Wednesday, where nearly all schools are out.”

U is looking to take advantage of the week before Christmas by releasing “Fockers” Dec. 22, giving it two good play days before the holiday weekend.

The last time Christmas fell on a Saturday was 1999, and it seemed to dampen business. That year, on Dec. 17, “Stuart Little” was the top film, opening at $15 million but climbing within three weeks past $80 million. Other pics to open that weekend, however, were underperformers “Bicentennial Man” and “Anna and the King.”

The following week, the top new film was “Any Given Sunday,” which opened Dec. 22 and claimed $20.6 million in its first five days. Other pics opening that weekend were “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (which bowed with $12.7 million), “Man on the Moon” ($12.3 million) and “Galaxy Quest” ($7 million).

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