Holiday pix in crowded mix

Kudo titles collide with family fare

Does Hollywood have a binge problem?

In 2005, 58 movies opened between Nov. 17 and Jan. 1. This year’s holiday glut will see 65 pics jockeying for position, with an estimated 27 going wide.

Every year, studios claim to view box office as a year-round business. And every December looks like the one before, with head-butting release schedules that pack in product ranging from high-end awards hopefuls to family fare. For this go-round, we’ll see as many as five wide releases going head-to-head in a single frame.

Why do studio distrib pros keep stocking December with pics, even as the competish becomes more fierce? The answers change pic by pic, studio by studio.

Over the next six weeks, the high-stakes launches range from Oscar hopefuls big and little (“Dreamgirls,” “The Good German”) to broad family fare (“Night at the Museum, “Charlotte’s Web”) to pics with specific demo targets (“The Holiday”). But while they’re all in the same race, they have different finish lines in their sights.

Prestige pics want to plant their flags and begin building word of mouth for early 2007, when awards season moves into high gear.

Other films have a three-pronged plan: Tap into the heavy holiday audience available over long weekends, quickly rack up big bucks and then get the hell out.

But the fevered pursuit of such rewards turns some weekends into logjams.

Take the Dec. 22 frame. “Charlotte’s” and “Night” will vie for families, while “Rocky Balboa” and “We Are Marshall” stake out the feel-good sports pic market.

At the same time, “The Good Shepherd” wades into a prestige market that will already include the previous frame’s “Venus,” “The Painted Veil,” “Dreamgirls,” “The Good German,” “Home of the Brave” and “Inland Empire.” Phew!

But each film has a different reason for picking the date.

“Rocky” began as a Sony movie with a February rollout, while “Marshall” was an October pic that needed more time in post.

“We feel pretty confident,” MGM distrib topper Clark Woods says of the scheduling decision. “Those are the best 10-12 days of play for the entire year. And at Christmas you can have five or eight times the multiples of your opening weekend. There are usually multiples of 2.5 or 3.”

Universal faces mixed buzz on “Shepherd,” but it’s a big-budget, Matt Damon/Angelina Jolie vehicle with heavyweight actor-director Robert De Niro. The studio needs to show its talent it believes in the pic and swing for the fences.

And in the family-film market, the Christmas multiples can mean millions.

Two years ago, that market expanded enough to permit a string of hits: “The Incredibles,” “Lemony Snicket,” “The Polar Express,” “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and “National Treasure.”

This year, the onslaught begins Dec. 15 with pics including “Eragon” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” On Dec. 19, Paramount will send live-action/animated kidpic “Charlotte’s Web” up against Fox’s family comedy “Night at the Museum.”

While risky, the right December date also offers unique conditions that can create a perfect storm. Last year, “Walk the Line” caught a sweet spot and strolled into awards season.

Despite a surfeit of movies, the last six weeks of 2006 still lack a “Chronicles of Narnia,” “King Kong” or “Lord of the Rings” — a film designed to absorb 3,000-plus screens in a single weekend. “Casino Royale,” unspooling Nov. 17, is expected to be a blockbuster, but it could be played out by Christmas. This gives long shots hope.

For years, distribution execs have treated holiday dating as standard practice for awards hopefuls. In reality, though, a year-end bow is unnecessary: Last year’s best picture winner, “Crash,” rolled out in May.

Despite the early awards season — Oscar ballots are mailed out Dec. 26, before some would-be nominees even open — the count of specialty pics rolling out between the weekend prior to Thanksgiving and New Year’s continues to rise. This season, 38 films will roll out in an exclusive or limited platform. MGM alone will roll out nine films, including “Rocky” and “Home of the Brave.” Many of its pics, including “Miss Potter,” “Factory Girl” and “Bobby,” come from MGM’s output deal with the Weinstein Co.

The 2006 awards contest also lacks clear front-runners, leaving studios and voters looking toward the glut for possibilities.

But it’s a confusing year. Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” from Disney, might have been written off after the devout hyphenate’s recent offscreen antics. However, word on the street now says the pic is a contender.

Disney will open “Apocalypto” against two from Warners — “Blood Diamond” and “Unaccompanied Minors” — as well as Sony’s “The Holiday.”

The week of Dec. 25-29 will see the release of multiple pics aimed at thinking auds: “Potter” as well as Euro hit “Perfume,” Picturehouse’s hotly tipped “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Universal’s “Children of Men.” Meanwhile, “Dreamgirls” and “Painted Veil” are slated to expand.

Privately, studio distribs may have wished for earlier dates for their films, ones that would have given them a little more time to build word of mouth.

However, they often capitulate to producers and talent who still believe a holiday release is tantamount to awards endorsement; anything else is a slap in the face.

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