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Mouse parks on shark

D'Works looking for another date to launch animated pic

Reprising the acrimony between Disney and DreamWorks, the Mouse House has claimed Nov. 5, 2004, for the release of Pixar’s “The Incredibles.” Since last December, DreamWorks had skedded its toon “Sharkslayer” for the same date, already trumpeting it in a series of ads.

Given the long lead time required for toon-related merchandising and licensing deals, the clash creates a major headache for DreamWorks. Vexed execs concede they are shopping for another date for what they see as the start of a major toon franchise.

It won’t be easy to find another home for “Sharkslayer,” an underwater mob romp featuring the voices of Will Smith, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, among others. Nov. 19, the Friday before Thanksgiving, is already taken by Warner Bros.’ “Polar Express,” an all-CGI reteaming of Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis, and the first feature bow of TV icon “SpongeBob SquarePants” from Paramount.

Early November is familiar turf for Pixar, which launched “Monsters, Inc.” in that slot in 2001 in deference to Warners’ Thanksgiving plan for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Previous to ’01, Disney and Pixar had long dominated the Thanksgiving B.O.

Disney’s lone comment on the matter came from a spokesperson: “It looks like the moviegoing public will have lots to choose from on Nov. 5, 2004.”

While speculation has focused on CEO Michael Eisner’s possible personal agenda in blocking Jeffrey Katzenberg’s animation efforts, principals at both companies were mum on that issue.

Another ingredient is the imminent expiration of Pixar’s deal at Disney. Showing its loyalty to Pixar, which scored again with “Finding Nemo,” may well be a top Mouse House priority.

DreamWorks expressed amazement that its diplomatic efforts to be the date’s sole animated player were met with what appeared to be an abrupt and aggressive response.

In December, after rival studios were informed via the industry calendar maintained by AC Nielsen EDI, “they kept saying they didn’t know” when “Incredibles” would bow, said DreamWorks’ Jim Tharp. “What came back to us in the end was ‘Nobody owns a date.’ ”

A teaser for “Incredibles,” touting its Nov. 5 date, was attached to “Nemo” and is now available online.

Noted DreamWorks’ Terry Press, “To animate (the date on) that teaser and get it attached to the feature would take at least a month. So they’ve known the date for a while.”

Jockeying for dates is a bizarre ritual of Hollywood, conducted with both competitive fire and cordial schmoozing. Legally, studios cannot agree they will or will not come out with a movie on a certain date, but the operating assumption is that everybody loses if two heavyweights go after the same audience on the same weekend.

Steering clear of rivals is especially important in the animated pic biz, once the exclusive province of the Mouse House. The last several years have seen several toon tussles. In 1997, Disney famously carved into Fox’s grosses on “Anastasia” by re-releasing “The Little Mermaid” on the same weekend.

Disney also moved Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” opposite DreamWorks’ toon debut “The Prince of Egypt” before the latter moved back to December 1998.

DreamWorks also departed from the usual Tuesday DVD release pattern in ’01 to usher in “Shrek,” which pitted the disc against the theatrical opening of “Monsters, Inc.”

A micro-tussle even went on this summer over DreamWorks’ “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.” Not only did it have words with Paramount over the “Rugrats Go Wild” date in June, but then Disney positioned “Pirates of the Caribbean” on July 9, a Wednesday bow likely to hurt receipts for “Sinbad,” which launches July 2.

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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