Fox adjusts stakes of its '09 tentpoles

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James Cameron's 3-D feature "Avatar," which Fox planned to release for Memorial Day 2009, has been pushed back seven months to Dec. 18.

Fox announced the change Tuesday in a revamp of its 2009 tentpole lineup that will see the sequel "Night at the Museum 2: Escape From the Smithsonian," starring Ben Stiller, occupying the May 22 spot that originally was reserved for "Avatar."

The studio also said that "Ice Age 3," opening July 1, will be released in 3-D. Rounding out the slate is the May 1 release of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the fourth installment in the successful "X-Men" franchise.

The "Avatar" move comes about four months after DreamWorks Animation said that it was moving Paramount's 2009 release of the 3-D animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" from May 15 to March 27 to avoid a head-on-collision with "Avatar," which would have had the films fighting over the nation's 3-D screens.

By waiting until December, "Avatar" could take advantage of a steadily growing number of 3-D screens. Current estimates suggest that 4,000 3-D-ready screens will be in place in the U.S. by May 2009. Although deals are in the works for 3-D screens in Europe and Asia, there's no firm estimate on how many will be in place internationally by then.

The move also is reminiscent of Cameron's experience in 1997 when "Titanic," facing production delays, moved from July to a similar December date, though the studio said in this case it's not a sign of duress.

"This is a win-win for us," said Hutch Parker, vice chairman of Fox Film Group. " 'Avatar' goes to the 'Titanic' date in December, which was obviously auspicious for Jim and us, and by the time of the release, there will be more worldwide 3-D screens available."

Live-action principal photography for "Avatar" is almost completed in New Zealand, where Peter Jackson's visual effects house Weta Digital is incorporating new CGI techniques to transform environments and characters into photorealistic 3-D imagery. The new date is expected to allow Weta more time to convert its software to the new technology without rushing the postproduction process.

"Making this change more than two years out allows Weta to achieve this unparalleled cinematic feat with the most efficient completion of the digital effects," Parker said.

"Avatar" is about an ex-Marine who is sent to an exotic planet where he leads an uprising by its indigenous race. Cameron, who wrote the story, is producing along with Jon Landau for Lightstorm Entertainment.

Stiller returns as night security guard Larry Daley for the "Museum" sequel set at the Smithsonian Institute. "Museum" writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon penned the script, with a rewrite by Scott Frank. Shawn Levy will again direct as well as produce through his 21 Laps Entertainment, alongside Chris Columbus and his 1492 Prods.

Stiller is the first confirmed casting for the sequel. However, many of the original cast, including Owen Wilson, Robin Williams and Ricky Gervais, are expected to return. Additions to the cast could include Reese Witherspoon, who is being mentioned to play Amelia Earhart, one of whose planes is housed in the Smithsonian. The comedy-adventure will be filmed inside the D.C. museum complex — a first for a major film, Fox said.

"Ice Age 3" will reteam director Carlos Saldanha, who co-directed the first "Ice Age" and directed "Ice Age: The Meltdown," with voice talent Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah and Denis Leary. Blue Sky Studios is producing the film, along with Lori Forte and John Donkin. Michael Berg and Peter Ackerman penned the script.

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is a spinoff on the Wolverine character played by Hugh Jackman in the "X-Men" franchise. Written by David Benioff and directed by Gavin Hood, the film focuses on Wolverine's violent and romantic past and his relationship with archenemy Victor Creed.

Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter are producing, along with Jackman and his Seed Prods. producing partner John Palermo. Marvel Films' Kevin Feige will executive produce.

Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
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