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Summer pix in early gridlock

With more at stake, studios crowd skeds

The summer movie season of 2005 is nearly six months away, but studios are already poring over the release schedule, keeping a close eye on some potentially bruising collisions.

In keeping with the trend of past years, Hollywood has crammed the schedule with so many releases that, if you’re still trying searching for a date for your blockbuster, the only open weekend left is Aug. 26.

The battles start in May, but the most closely watched game of release-date chicken comes over the July 4 weekend when Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise sci-fi pic “War of the Worlds” is skedded to open against comicbook adaptation “The Fantastic Four.”

“We are fated to repeat history each year,” says Sony vice chair Jeff Blake. “From the beginning of May to the middle of August, there’s a big opening every week.”

Adds Disney distrib head Chuck Viane: “It’s absolutely as crowded as ever. And just like in the last few years, you’re going to have a big picture or two each weekend — if you’re lucky.”

Studios have a huge incentive to avoid this kind of faceoff, since opening big pictures on the same weekend tends to hurt the grosses of both titles. Also, upcoming battles can look bigger from afar than closer to the date. For instance, the Dec. 17 weekend’s triple opening of “Spanglish,” “Lemony Snicket” and “The Aviator” once looked to be a major mashup. In the end, “Snicket” won with a modest opening, “Aviator” decided to make it a limited bow and “Spanglish” didn’t materialize as a blockbuster.

Still, neither side is giving much ground in the battle between “War” and “Four.” Last April, Fox planted its flag on Fourth of July weekend for “Fantastic Four.” Then in August, Paramount announced it was co-producing with DreamWorks the Spielberg/Cruise collaboration “War of the Worlds,” which it would release on June 29, a Wednesday.

It’s widely expected that one of those pics will move, but neither studio wants to be the one to blink first. If the two pics remain in place, it would make for a showdown not seen since “Gremlins” and “Ghostbusters” both opened June 8, 1984, to say nothing of the battle between “The Perfect Storm” and “The Patriot” over the Independence Day weekend in 2000.

Par recently unveiled a teaser for “War,” in part to raise public awareness of the pic and in part to signal to rival distribs that this is the sort of Spielberg pic to steer clear of.

But both Fox and Paramount have reason to believe the other studio will abandon the date. With “War” being produced on an extremely tight sked — it only started lensing in November — there are some doubts on the Fox lot about whether the f/x-heavy pic will be delivered on time.

Of course, “Four,” which tells the tale of the elastic Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, the Invisible Woman and the Thing, will have plenty of CGI work of its own to complete before release. And, as with nearly all f/x-driven pics, rumors of delays have begun to swirl.

Of course, with the calendar as crowded as it is, neither studio has many summer options to choose from if it decides to concede the July 4 weekend.

Illustrating the bind is the May mash-up. “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” opens May 20, the same berth the previous two pics in the series have occupied. But both those pics were given much more latitude than “Episode III” is getting.

The George Lucas pic is hemmed in on either side by Will Ferrell comedy “Kicking and Screaming,” which bows May 13, and then toon “Madagascar” and Adam Sandler laffer “The Longest Yard” on May 27.

With such “sure-thing” properties, studios typically steer clear of the weekends both before and after such a blockbuster. In 1999, “Episode I — The Phantom Menace” opened two weeks after “The Mummy” and three weeks before “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” In 2002, “Episode II — Attack of the Clones” opened two weeks after “Spider-Man” and two weeks before “The Sum of All Fears.”

It’s no coincidence that Fox is involved in two of these summer mash-ups. Studio is planning to release four films during the most competitive 10 weeks on the sked. (In addition to “Star Wars” and “Fantastic Four,” it has Ridley Scott pic “Kingdom of Heaven” on May 6 and Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie starrer “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” June 10.

Sony and Warner Bros. are planning four releases apiece in May, June and July, but those studios are spreading their pics out a bit more.

In an attempt to get a jump on the summer crowd, Sony will make a bid to start “summer” even earlier with “XXX: Head of State,” starring Ice Cube, bowing April 29. Original “XXX” launched the second week of August in 2002.

“There’s really no logical reason, as far as the school schedule or anything else, that (grosses on) April 29 should be any different than May 1,” Blake said.

The summer season has been creeping forward from Memorial Day for years. With “The Mummy” in 1999, Universal demonstrated that the first weekend of May could be huge even though kids are still in school. DreamWorks followed in 2000 with Scott’s “Gladiator.” And Sony set the three-day weekend record in 2001 with “Spider-Man’s” $114 million haul.

Last year, after “Mean Girls” opened to a surprising $24.4 million on April 30, Par retroactively designated it a summer pic to boost its “summer” tally.

The quest for more prime summer playtime also is pushing studios to get more money out of the end of the summer. Studios usually cram their heaviest artillery into May and June; but in 2005, studios are trying to spread out their pics into the latter part of the season.

On July 8, Sony opens “Bewitched” against Universal’s “Skeleton Key.” The following week Warners will release Johnny Depp starrer “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”; on July 22, DreamWorks’ “The Island” is up against New Line’s “The Wedding Crashers.” And on July 29, Warners brings out “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

August, too, looks tough. Universal is going out with its Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson vidgame actioner “Doom” on Aug. 5, while Sony is running with “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” a week later.

While successful late-summer pics are hardly a rarity, Sony’s Blake notes late July and August have not yet proved to be a consistently strong play period.

“If you’re dominant on any other weekend in summer, you’re pretty much assured of being successful,” he says. “It can happen later, but it doesn’t necessarily always happen.”