3D titles could spell a year-end bonanza

'Avatar,' 'Christmas Carol,' 'Mr. Fox' among films set to bow

Get ready for holiday stress.

For Hollywood studios, film executives and the industry at large, success or failure in any boxoffice year often is decided during its closing months. Summer is the most lucrative theatrical season, but the holidays -- which Nielsen EDI defines as the weekend before Thanksgiving through the first weekend of the new year -- are a close second, despite being notably less dominated by comic book characters and action-pic mayhem.

Like an overstuffed Christmas stocking, the holiday calendar tends to overflow with an assortment of film goodies. So in addition to the usual performance anxiety, a sheer crush of competition ratchets up seasonal pressure on distributors and makes for a mad dash to the finish line for many bonus-minded studio execs.

Holiday releases tend to fall into two distinct categories:

-- Tentpoles with top commercial prospects and perhaps a seasonal theme

-- Prestige pics seeing to exploit early kudos-season accolades.

Sherlock Holmes

Many of the more commercial wide releases typically have launched so late in the season that much of their boxoffice is registered during the following calendar year. But with the huge openings delivered by the biggest movie hits these days, even Christmas openers can deliver a late-breaking lift to a distributor's annual boxoffice tally and industry market share.

Headed into the home stretch of 2009, nothing looks likely to keep Warner Bros. and Paramount from finishing 1-2 for the year.

Warners, which boasts a 20% market share with $1.6 billion in domestic grosses to date, has one of the fourth quarter's major titles unspooling Dec. 25: "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

Paramount, with a nearly 17% share and $1.32 billion in boxoffice, has a holiday slate marked less by commercial prospects than awards potential. Kudos candidates include the George Clooney starrer "Up in the Air," set to bow in limited release Dec. 4, and Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," a literary adaptation that launches a platform campaign Dec. 11.

Sony maintains a good shot at the year's bronze medal. The Culver City studio has a 13% share and $1.04 million in boxoffice to date, and its sci-fi actioner "2012" likely will rank among the holiday season's top six grossers.

Fox and Disney, market-share laggards at fewer than 12% apiece, should enhance their 12-month performances considerably with holiday tentpoles. Both are certain to climb above the magical $1 billion mark by year's end.

A Christmas Carol

Fox can pretty much bank on the industry's near-unanimous candidate for this year's top-grossing holiday pic: "Avatar." Director James Cameron has been hyping the pricey 3D actioner for months, and fanboy interest alone should fuel a big bow Dec. 18 and a lucrative theatrical run over the long haul.

Fox will double-dip into seasonal riches when it releases "Alvin and the Chipmunks II: The Squeakuel" on Christmas Day. The first "Alvin" squirreled away $217 million domestically, and the second is expected to post close to the same tally.

Disney's biggest fourth-quarter release unspools just ahead of the holidays, with the 3D animated feature "A Christmas Carol" set to bow Nov. 6. Like "Avatar," the Jim Carrey-starring seasonal tale was produced in motion-capture animation and targets a broad swathe of audience demos.

Both pics will play in a mix of 2D and 3D venues.

Expected to open north of $75 million, "Avatar" should muster about 3,000 3D screens in about 2,700 theaters. "Carol" might boast as many at the start of its run but will hold screens only in theaters having more than one 3D auditorium once "Avatar" hits multiplexes.

Come Christmas, Fox will need to identify sufficient 3D screens for "Avatar" and the "Chipmunks" sequel, though the latter will play in more 2D than 3D auditoriums.

"I'll be looking for lots and lots of theaters for both pictures," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder says. "There's a little bit of a crunch for screens, as there is every Christmas. But I would expect to see at least 3,500 locations on both pictures."

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Meanwhile, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," a Fox Searchlight production that begins a platform campaign Nov. 13, could figure in awards balloting for its stop-action animation wonderments. Other prestige titles set for holiday slots include the Weinstein Co.'s literary adaptation "The Road," bowing in wide release Nov. 25, and its musical "Nine," set for limited release Dec. 18 before a wide expansion Dec. 25.

Summit Entertainment's vampire-romance sequel "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" tops a list of other holiday releases sure to chalk up north of $100 million eventually. Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" is another, with the 2D animated feature set for bicoastal exclusives Nov. 25 ahead of a wide expansion Dec. 11.

"Presales have been extraordinary," Disney distribution boss Chuck Viane says.

Disney, which tends to own the Thanksgiving period, also has the John Travolta-toplined family pic "Old Dogs" set to debut on Thanksgiving Eve.

Of the majors, Universal is fielding the quietest holiday release slate, only opening the romantic comedy "It's Complicated," starring Meryl Streep and Steve Martin, on Dec. 25.

Overall, the holidays should feature an appealing enough mix of art and commerce to keep boxoffice on track for a record year, and perhaps even stimulate a recently rare uptick in attendance.

Year-to-date domestic boxoffice was up 4.6% through Sunday at $7.88 billion, and the industry has a good shot at its first $10 billion year after a record $9.78 billion tally in 2008. More than $1 billion of this year's haul will be directly traceable to 3D grosses.

"The holiday period looks pretty good," National Association of Theatre Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran says.

The trade association exec adds with a laugh, "There are some pictures that look like they could actually be entertaining, in addition to being good for you."