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Summer tints fall

Studios turn to genre fare for autumn green

The box office period from September to December is usually about mature themes, classical scores and actors wearing tunics. But not in 2000.

Top year-end movie titles this time around are unusually heavy on action, horror, comedy and Jim Carrey in a big green suit.

Most of the fall tentpoles have a suspiciously warm-weather aesthetic — and the way they’re crowded together suggests the same intense rivalry that marked the Fourth of July and Memorial Day weekends.

“It’s the summer redux. It’s maddening,” said Marc Shmuger, marketing prexy at Universal. “The ramp-up starts earlier now and there are just too many pictures out there for them all to do business.”

If the industry needs anything this fall, it’s good business. By Labor Day, overall box office will be roughly even with last year. The critical summer period, however, will likely wind up down at least 5% from last year’s record. When May began, the B.O. had a 10% lead on 1999’s pace.

From Labor Day through New Year’s last year, the movie biz racked up $2.2 billion. Not only did pics peak around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they exploited historically inert holidays like Halloween and Veterans Day.

If history can repeat itself, 2000 has a shot at matching 1999 commercially, but it’s going to be a horserace from here on out.

SEPTEMBER

The Summer Olympics in Sydney have already cast a pall over the first month of the fall.

Significant releases can be counted on one hand: DreamWorks’ “Almost Famous,” Disney’s “Remember the Titans,” Fox Searchlight’s “Woman on Top,” USA Films’ “Nurse Betty” and Artisan’s “The Way of the Gun.”

Typically known as a launching pad for offbeat pics with big aspirations, September will see bows of Sundance fave “Girlfight” and Cannes prize winner “Dancer in the Dark.”

Last year’s “American Beauty” typifies the upside of a slow September rollout. DreamWorks’ plan in 1999 worked like a charm, and the studio will debut the Cameron Crowe-helmed “Almost Famous” on the exact same date, Sept. 15. It will also platform a la “Beauty.”

The period rock-‘n’-roll pic may not star Brad Pitt (as Crowe initially hoped), but Billy Crudup and tyros Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit are already garnering acclaim.

Disney’s “Titans” is a feel-good footballer starring Denzel Washington. Test scores have Mouse Housers thinking touchdown. Fox Searchlight hopes the long-finished “Woman,” a romantic comedy, will finally break Penelope Cruz to wide American auds.

“Nurse Betty” is shaping up as this year’s “Being John Malkovich” for USA — a quirky film with breakout potential. Director Neil LaBute lightens up after “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “In the Company of Men,” and stars Renee Zellweger, Greg Kinnear and Chris Rock add marketing hooks.

“Way of the Gun” stars a bulked-up Ryan Philippe and Benicio del Toro, along with Juliette Lewis and Taye Diggs. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”), it’s Artisan’s first wide release in several months.

OCTOBER

“Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows” reps an intriguing test of marketing stamina. The original set the film world on its ear. Can the sequel live up to expectations?

The plot continues the blurring of screen drama and reality. It concerns a group of college students who become fascinated with the Blair Witch legend and go into the Maryland woods to see what happened to the original trio.

With the movie opening Friday the 27th and Halloween falling on a Tuesday, the door is wide open. The only other wide bow is Paramount’s John Travolta starrer “Lucky Numbers,” a onetime summer pic formerly known as “Numbers.”

Speaking of summer, Fox’s “Bedazzled” and Miramax’s “Bounce” were previously slated for midyear.

Other key October pics are U’s “Billy Elliot” (the first release from the studio’s new Focus division); Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro comedy “Meet the Parents” (also U); and Warner Bros.’ Bel Air-produced “Pay It Forward.”

“Pay” is a romance-tinged drama starring last year’s Oscar-season tandem of Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment, plus Helen Hunt.

“I’ve made some 40 movies, but I’ve never had one like this,” said Bel Air topper Steve Reuther.

Fall, Reuther added, “is a time when people sit forward and look at performance. They’re ready for something different.”

Though ticketed for wide release, two pics with arthouse appeal are on the October schedule: Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (New Line) and Robert Altman’s “Dr. T and the Women” (Artisan).

NOVEMBER

Audiences waiting to catch up on movies over the Thanksgiving break are likely to miss a ton of high-priced product early in the month.

On Nov. 3 and Nov. 10, five major releases will test those waters.

The first frame features “Legend of Bagger Vance,” a Robert Redford-lensed period golf pic with Matt Damon and Will Smith; “Charlie’s Angels,” with Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Bill Murray; and Val Kilmer’s Mars actioner “Red Planet.”

With Adam Sandler’s intergenerational devil comedy “Little Nicky” firmly entrenched on the 10th, only the Robert De Niro/Cuba Gooding Jr. pic “Men of Honor” will test the waters.

The competish will heat up even more on the 17th as four heavyweights get into the ring: MGM’s steamy “Original Sin,” starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie; Par’s “Rugrats in Paris: The Movie”; Sony’s Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning pic “The 6th Day”; and U’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Latter film must Carrey huge expectations, given its negative cost, tens of millions of dollars in marketing tie-ins and significant gross-point participation.

Key for U is to properly time its marketing blitz.

“We don’t want to have a message out there too long,” Shmuger explained. “When the film opens, you should be at the crest of the wave.”

Once the “Grinch” wave hits, a small window of opportunity will open for Disney’s twin Thanksgiving releases, “102 Dalmatians” and “Unbreakable.”

Bowing on the 10th is Paramount Classics’ “You Can Count on Me,” starring Laura Linney.

The Mouse House has dominated the Turkey span in recent years, and “Toy Story 2” extended the streak last year. “102” follows an extremely successful initial pic and adds Gerard Depardieu and a spotless white Dalmatian named Oddball.

Rarely do two big-budgeters come from the same distrib on the same weekend. “Unbreakable” aims a lot more adult, however, which strengthens the strategy.

Pic reteams director M. Night Shamalyan and star Bruce Willis in another supernatural thriller.

DECEMBER

The B.O. typically slouches as the New Year approaches. Many releases are Academy qualifying runs and thus highly commercial fare can be more scarce than in November.

On Dec. 8, Sony’s “Vertical Limit” arrives. The “Perfect Storm”-esque actioner with weather effects stars Chris O’Donnell — and the Himalayas as themselves.

Also on Dec. 8, Warners’ “Proof of Life” showcases even more high-altitude location shooting. The Andes mountains are the backdrop for a portion of the Russell Crowe/Meg Ryan adventure-thriller about a hostage negotiator.

Back on the flatland, “The Emperor’s New Groove” launches Dec. 15. Disney’s first animated effort since “Dinosaur” features songs by Sting.

Also set for that busy Dec. 15 frame are Par’s Mel Gibson comedy “What Women Want” and U’s Nicolas Cage drama “Family Man,” directed by “Rush Hour’s” Brett Ratner.

The following week, Dec. 22, caps the year in hectic fashion.

Tom Hanks starrer “Cast Away,” helmed by Robert Zemeckis and co-produced by DreamWorks and Fox, will match up with New Line’s Cold War thriller “13 Days,” starring Kevin Costner, Par’s Jude Law/Ralph Fiennes World War II epic “Enemy at the Gates,” Warner Bros.’ Sandra Bullock starrer “Miss Congeniality” and Miramax’s “Wes Craven Presents Dracula.”

Slated for Dec. 29 (though pics don’t tend to bow between Christmas and New Year’s) are Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” and “All the Pretty Horses,” which Miramax recently picked up from partner Sony for domestic distribution.

One star-studded title without a specific release date is Par Classics’ “The Gift.” Pic, helmed by Sam Raimi and written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, stars Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi and Hillary Swank.

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