Studios hone for the holidays

After a sizzling summer, this season tough to predict

After the greatest summer in overseas boxoffice history, what's in store for the year-end holiday season?

For one, international distribution executives said, it's hardly expected to be as productive as this year's spectacular May-September period, in which an extraordinary crop of presold sequels helped five major studios top $1 billion in overseas boxoffice revenue — by the end of July.

Unlike the unbridled enthusiasm displayed before the release of the summer tentpoles, distribution honchos said this year's Christmas-New Year's lineup is an intangible mix that's not easily predictable. Some call attention to the scarcity of preaware sequels and franchises; others to the presence of more adult-themed fare in a period that's geared to family outings. Moreover, not all studios are armed with what industry insiders term "a Christmas picture."

Yet Santa might have some surprises up his sleeve.

Following a four-year hiatus after the celebrated reception of the last film in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, New Line is introducing "The Golden Compass," the first of another trilogy that it hopes will be a franchise similar in stature to "Rings." The family fantasy-adventure from British writer Philip Pullman's three-part "His Dark Materials" launches its overseas holiday run early in December and aims to be in most territories by Dec. 7, except for Italy (Dec. 14), South Korea (Dec. 25) and Australia (Dec. 26).

"This is a perfect Christmas movie for the family," said Camela Galano, president of the Warner Bros. subsidiary's foreign arm, New Line International. "Hopefully it will be a big, big movie and the first of a new franchise."

Brand-conscious Walt Disney Studios, traditionally a leading purveyor of family entertainment, is typically gung-ho about what it has to offer during the holiday season.

"We feel we have the perfect Disney branded duo in 'Enchanted' and 'National Treasure: Book of Secrets' that will appeal to the broadest of both family and general audiences over the Christmas season and into the February holidays," said Anthony Marcoly, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International.

"Enchanted," a classic Disney fairy tale that combines live action and animation, will tour the world (except Japan) during November and December following its U.S. bow over the Thanksgiving Day holiday period.

"Book of Secrets," the lone tentpole sequel among the year-end offerings, starts its quest Dec. 21 in 20 overseas markets day-and-date with the U.S. bow, continues into January and winds up with a few dates in February.

Among the anticipated new gifts for overseas moviegoers during the Christmas season is the highly touted entry of comedian Jerry Seinfeld to the animated film world via DreamWorks Animation/Paramount's "Bee Movie." Distributor Paramount Pictures International will have "Bee" buzzing in key territories from late November (Spain and Mexico) through December (U.K., France, Germany and Italy) and on to January (Korea and Japan).

"I think the film will do extremely well over the year-end holidays," PPI president Andrew Cripps said. "It is the one film that will appeal to all quadrants and will play strongly to both girls and boys, and it is the only animated film in the marketplace at Christmas."

To international distributors, the tightly concentrated holiday period, second to summer as the industry's best boxoffice opportunity, extends to January for the Asian Lunar New Year and into February for school holidays in Latin America and Australia. Although the summer span is usually dominant at the boxoffice, international execs said the right year-end movie backed by dates in many territories can even do better than a summer release.

Warner Bros. Pictures International's main contribution to holiday moviegoers is "I Am Legend," the Will Smith sci-fi horror-thriller that will invade foreign shores from mid-December to mid-January. "Legend" follows the wide mid-November release of the Robert Zemeckis-directed violent action-adventure "Beowulf," a Warners-Paramount co-production, with Warners handling international distribution and Paramount domestic. And the Christmas-slanted "Fred Claus" will be visiting scattered overseas theaters during November and December.

Fox has two contrasting genres in its holiday mix, the family appeal "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and the action-horror "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem." "Alvin" will sing its way through most of Europe starting in mid-December and continue through February for southern hemisphere school holidays. "Alien" opens day-and-date with the U.S. on Dec. 25 in Germany, Australia and Japan and will run through January in the rest of the world.

"We're hoping 'Alvin' will be a surprise," said Tomas Jegues, co-president of 20th Century Fox International. "For 'Alien,' we're counterprogramming against family product to attract the young male audience."

Sony Pictures Releasing International, sans a so-called "big Christmas picture" this year, will wend its way through the holiday loop with a mixed bag of titles ranging from the specialized Julie Taymor drama-musical "Across the Universe" to the horror "30 Days of Night." More in keeping with the season, however, there's "This Christmas," about a family reunion, and "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," a family adventure fantasy that is set to open on Christmas Day in Mexico and on New Year's Day in Australia and New Zealand. The remainder of the release will extend through winter school breaks and the Easter holidays.

Without a family attraction on its slate, Universal Pictures International has set its sights on thoughtful moviegoing adults in search of diversion during the holiday period. The studio's key year-end film is the Ridley Scott-directed "American Gangster," which is set for wide global release from November through the holidays and on into January. Also on the adult wavelength are "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and the Oscar hopeful "Atonement." Both films are in global release and will be on tap in scattered territories during the holiday period. UPI's adult-appeal trend continues into January and February with the release of the Mike Nichols-directed war-themed action-drama "Charlie Wilson's War."

Making its bow as a holiday supplier of popular films, indie distributor Summit Entertainment is going after romantically inclined revelers with "P.S., I Love You," which will be obtainable Chistmastime in several major countries, including the U.K., Australia and South Korea.

And horror fans can line up for Lionsgate's "Saw IV" in handful of markets as the new year approaches.

More films with a degree of exposure during the holiday season include "The Kite Runner" and "Lions for Lambs" and a host of other newbies and oldies.