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Holiday table packed with pix

Studios hope auds have room for prime releases

Studios are putting the final touches on the 2001 holiday movie season, and there will be a slew of yule duels.

Nearly 30 major studio releases are jockeying for position in the weeks between Nov. 2 and Christmas. That includes 23 or 24 wide releases (depending on studio decisions), a jump from the 22 last year.

This summer, studios carefully avoided going head to head with their big films. But at holiday season, the competish will be more intense, with many lavish productions set to collide head on.

On Dec. 7, for example, Sony’s “Ali” opens against Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s 11.” On the 21st, the pivotal Friday before Christmas, Miramax pits “Gangs of New York” against WB’s “The Majestic.”

In other words, Michael Mann vs. Steven Soderbergh. Martin Scorsese vs. Jim Carrey. Hundreds of millions versus hundreds of millions.

Christmas Day will see the entry of five significant titles. And we have not even mentioned “Harry Potter.” Or “Lord of the Rings.” Or “Vanilla Sky.” Or … well, you get the idea.

These dates are subject to change, and some pics may bounce to 2002. But for some producers, this winter’s tale is looking like a midsummer’s nightmare, with megapics positioned on almost every weekend.

“I think it could be a real disaster,” says a top exec at one of Hollywood’s biggest production companies. His shingle has an entry in the holiday derby, and he hopes for the best, but fears that projects released over the next several months won’t get the care and handing they deserve.

However, studio execs say a logjam at the holidays is inevitable. The market has grown more crowded year-round, and of course that would be reflected in the holiday season, which is Hollywood’s second most profitable time of year, after summer.

Last year, films pulled in a record $1.6 billion in November and December, and optimists are hoping to match that, or surpass it, this year.

“The industry is turning out more movies than ever,” says New Line distribution prexy David Zucker. “And we’re starting to run into each other. What you try to do is look for a picture that’s unique and has a niche, and position it as best you can.”

Studios are banking on the strength of the stars and the caliber of the material to carve out a niche in the market — many of these pics are Oscar contenders (see separate story), not lightweight, thrill-happy spectacles.

“We feel more secure than we have some Christmases,” says Warner Bros. film production prexy Lorenzo di Bonaventura. WB has distributed its weight evenly across the frame, with “Harry Potter” on Nov. 16, “Ocean’s 11” on Dec. 7 and Jim Carrey starrer “The Majestic” on Dec. 21.

What’s changed lately, says di Bonaventura, is that the holiday “season” has widened. Just as the studios once extended summer from a Memorial Day-Labor Day window to a four-month cash cow, the Thanksgiving-yuletide period is being enlarged and given a fresh coat of A-list sheen.

Ever since Adam Sandler’s watershed 1998 “Waterboy” opening, early November is now a coveted slot. Trying to avoid getting “Potter”-ed, Disney grabbed Nov. 2 for its CGI pic “Monsters, Inc.,” and Sony has the Jet Li actioner “The One” also bowing.

But the steady flow of product, combined with rare weekends off such as Nov. 30 (usually more of a shopping frame than a moviegoing one) and Dec. 28 (too close to party-hearty New Year’s), will leave several pics scrambling for a foothold.

Oscar contenders whose audience gradually widens through word of mouth may find the market especially unforgiving.

This past January-March, a lot of late-2000 openers (“Crouching Tiger,” “Traffic,” “Chocolat,” “Cast Away”) blossomed. But in 2002, the Winter Olympics begin in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8, which could shorten the legs of some holiday releases: TV ratings are usually high for U.S.-hosted Olympics.

However, Miramax co-head of marketing David Brooks says such pics are likely to be nurtured through a platform release that affords some breathing room.

“You look at things like ‘Tenenbaums’ and ‘The Shipping News,’ ” says Brooks. “They’re high-profile, but they’re not opening in every small town in America.”

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