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Holiday Box Office Preview: Will the Season Set a Record?

Warner Bros.' 'The Hobbit
"The Hobbit"

Comedy glut aside, studios are nervously whispering ho-ho-hooray as "The Hobbit," "Jack Reacher," "Les Mis" and other event movies just might be too big to fail.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The annual holiday traffic jam at the box office is creating both high hopes and frayed nerves around Hollywood. Eight "event" movies will open between Dec. 14 and Dec. 25, and many believe this year could see record grosses thanks in part to Christmas and New Year's Day falling midweek on Tuesdays, not to mention the Dec. 14 release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But there also are risky plays, with the other films each vulnerable in its own way. "Studios try to cram in as many movies as they can, and there are always casualties -- always," warns one veteran studio executive.

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The 2012 holiday calendar touts roughly the same number of big titles as last year, even with Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty bumping its nationwide release until Jan. 11 and The Great Gatsby moving to May. The Hobbit is the biggie, considering the final Lord of the Rings, released in December 2003, grossed $1.4 billion globally when adjusted for inflation.

There's a glut of comedies this holiday season. Paramount's The Guilt Trip, starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, opens Wednesday, Dec. 19, followed two days later by Universal's This Is 40, Judd Apatow's sort-of sequel to Knocked Up (minus Rogen). Starring Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei, 20th Century Fox's Parental Guidance debuts on Christmas Day.

Some observers believe the three films will compete for the same audience, but the respective studios insist their comedies will lure different demographics. The Guilt Trip, rated PG-13 and directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), is targeting grown children and their parents who are looking for something to do together. The R-rated This Is 40, reuniting Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, hopes to skew younger, despite its themes of midlife angst. Game Plan director Andy Fickman's Parental Guidance, rated PG, is a family play, with Fox hoping to repeat the success of Marley & Me, which grossed $242.7 million globally after opening on Dec. 25 in 2008.

The trio of comedies won't just be vying against one another. Disney and Pixar hope to woo families with the 3D rerelease of Monsters, Inc., opening Dec. 19, while Tom Cruise's Jack Reacher, based on the popular book series, debuts Dec. 21 and aims to be an all-audience action thriller. Opening opposite Parental Guidance on Dec. 25 are Quentin Tarantino's ultraviolent Django Unchained and the musical Les Miserables, from The King's Speech director Tom Hooper.

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Paramount's Jack Reacher, featuring Cruise as a hard-boiled former military investigator, and The Weinstein Co.'s Django, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, will compete for males. Last December, Cruise restored his star status with the better-than-expected performance of Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol ($694.7 million globally). Based on that success, Paramount relocated Reacher from February 2013 to Christmas, though it's not clear if the film will be hurt by fallout from Cruise's divorce from Katie Holmes.

"The primary audience is more male, but men will bring women," says Megan Colligan, Paramount president of domestic marketing and distribution. "It's a his-and-her movie."

Reacher is rated PG-13, while Django, about a slave who teams with a bounty hunter, is certain to receive an R rating. It's a bold move to release Django during the holidays; TWC debuted Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds, in August 2009, and it became a sleeper hit, grossing $321.6 million globally.

"It's a great date for Django," insists Erik Lomis, TWC president of domestic distribution. "Quentin has a proven track record, and it has huge stars. There's nothing else like it in the market."

Universal's Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, is a wild card. The most recent musical to open over the holidays was the flop Nine in 2009, though best picture Oscar winner Chicago grossed more than $300 million after opening in limited release in late-December 2002.

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"There are a million reasons why Les Mis will fare well during the holidays, and it's a Christmas gift for audiences" says Nikki Rocco, Universal president of domestic distribution. "It has religious themes, and part of the story takes place on Christmas." Both Les Mis and Django have awards aspirations, as do a number of limited releases hoping to build momentum during the holidays, including Matt Damon's anti-fracking drama Promised Land.

After a mixed 2011 holiday, with such hits as Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ($543.8 million) and disappointments as War Horse, We Bought a Zoo and The Adventures of Tintin, studios are hoping for a repeat of 2009, when Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, It's Complicated and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel lit up the box office."The marketplace can expand," says Colligan. "People go to the movies multiple times."