Yule logjam

Gridlock looms for star-laden holiday rush

The end of 2001 will be no holiday for the film biz. Studio slates are stuffed with an array of expensive, high-stakes titles featuring the very stars absent from marquees this summer.

More nerve-wrackingly, most pics will square off in weekend battles sure to leave money on the table and blood on the floor. Nearly 30 major releases are jockeying for position in the weeks between Nov. 2 and Christmas. That includes 23 or 24 wide releases (depending on studio decisions), up from 22 last year.

Topliners will include Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith. Autograph hounds on the red carpet for the “Ocean’s Eleven” preem will need enough ink for Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia and many more.

Contrast that list to stars of this summer’s hits like Ben Affleck, Reese Witherspoon, Vin Diesel and Sam Neill. (It’s telling that not even Eddie Murphy or Roberts could open their respective pics at No. 1 this effects-dominated season.)

This summer, studios carefully avoided going head-to-head with their big films, which has allowed for $50 million-plus openers nearly every weekend. But at holiday time, the competish will be more intense.

On Dec. 7, for example, Sony’s “Ali” opens against Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s Eleven.” On Dec. 21, 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 vs. hundreds of millions.

Christmas Day will see the entry of five significant titles. And we haven’t even mentioned “Harry Potter.” Or “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.” Or “Vanilla Sky.” Or … well, you get the idea.

The carnage can be spectacular at the end of the year. While summer’s overall bounty has meant few pics have bombed outright, last November and December witnessed such debacles as “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Red Planet,” “Little Nicky,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “Proof of Life.”

Blizzard of pix

The 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,” warned 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.

Studio execs say a logjam at the holidays is inevitable, however. The market has grown more crowded year-round, and that would of course 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,” said New Line distribution prexy David Tuckerman. “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.”

One unique pic on Tuckerman’s slate at New Line is the first installment in the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. That pic, opening about a month after Warners’ equally ballyhooed “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” gives the industry two titles that are as commercial as it gets, to go with the usual end-of-the-year art fare.

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, not lightweight, thrill-happy spectacles.

Evenly distributed

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

What’s changed lately, noted 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-Christmas period is being enlarged and given a fresh coat of A-list sheen.

Expanding calendar

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

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.

“Shallow Hal” will scrap with “Windtalkers” on Nov. 16 and “Not Another Teen Movie” vies with Tom Cruise starrer “Vanilla Sky” Dec. 14.

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, Hidden Dragon,” “Traffic,” “Chocolat,” “Cast Away” — blossomed. But the Winter Olympics begin Feb. 8 in Salt Lake City, which could shorten the legs of some holiday releases: TV ratings are usually high for U.S.-hosted Olympics.

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

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

(Carl DiOrio contributed to this report.)