Studio shuffles 2009 schedule

Substantially rearranging its 2009 tentpole sked, 20th Century Fox will release “Night at the Museum 2: Escape From the Smithsonian” on May 22 and move back James Cameron’s 3-D “Avatar” from the Memorial Day frame to Dec. 18, giving the helmer more time for post-production.

News reps the first official word that Fox is pushing ahead with a sequel to box office hit “Night at the Museum,” directed by Shawn Levy and starring Ben Stiller, who will reteam on “Smithsonian.” Sequel will be the first major Hollywood movie shot at the museum complex in Washington, D.C.

Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios also announced that Fox has decided to produce “Ice Age 3″ in digital 3-D. Toon was already set for release on July 1, 2009. Move signals studio’s confidence in the power of modern-day 3-D.

Fox had previously announced it will kick off summer 2009 with the release of Hugh Jackman starrer “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on May 1.

In summing up the various changes, Fox Film Group vice chair Hutch Parker said, “This is a win-win for us.”

Screenplay for “Smithsonian” was penned by “Night at the Museum” scribes Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, with a rewrite by Scott Frank. Levy will produce through his 21 Laps Entertainment, alongside 1492 Prods.’ Chris Columbus.

Additional casting for “Smithsonian” will be announced in the coming weeks, with some actors from the first film expected to return. In bringing the Smithsonian museum to life, sequel also will introduce historical figures to the franchise, including Amelia Earhart, whom Reese Witherspoon has been approached to play.

“Night at the Museum,” released last Christmas, grossed $252 million domestically and $323 million more overseas.

“Avatar,” announced earlier this year, will now open on the same weekend that Cameron’s “Titanic” did in 1997. The live-action/CGI hybrid is Cameron’s first feature since “Titanic,” which, after a decade, remains the highest-grossing film of all time, grossing $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office.

So far, no other films are dated for release on Dec. 18, 2009.

Pushing back the release of “Avatar” from May to December allows both more time to work on the effects and that much more time for additional theaters to install 3-D screens both here and abroad.

With the extra months, Cameron and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital will continue working on the groundbreaking technology invented by Cameron’s team and Weta for the film.

“Making this change more than two years out allows Weta to achieve this unparalleled cinematic feat with the most efficient completion of the digital effects,” Parker said.

Fox stressed that Cameron will soon complete live-action principal photography in New Zealand, on schedule. During its production, “Titanic” hit major delays.

Cameron and producing partner Jon Landau are producing “Avatar” through Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. Cameron also penned the script.

Both “Avatar” and “Ice Age” will be released in conventional 35mm formats as well for smaller markets without 3-D screens.

Parker said producing “Ice Age 3″ in digital 3-D still provides incentive for exhibs to install as many 3-D screens as they can by summer 2009.

“Ice Age: The Meltdown” director Carlos Saldanha, will direct “Ice Age 3.” Voice talent Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah and Denis Leary are back onboard. Pic is being produced by Lori Forte and John Donkin from a script by Michael Berg and Peter Ackerman.

Original decision to open “Avatar” on May 22, 2009, prompted Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation to move 3-D toon “Monsters vs. Aliens” from May 15 to March 27, 2009, out of concern that there wouldn’t be enough screens to handle two such films that close together.

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