Studios vying for holiday b.o. supremacy

Crowded slate of movies at year-end

Hollywood's year-end boxoffice smorgasbord tends to be equal parts HomeTown Buffet and Four Seasons champagne brunch.

From the Nov. 7 animated tentpole "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" to the Christmas prestige film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," diverse releases crowd the final two months of 2008.

Data service Nielsen EDI defines the holiday season -- one of five on the boxoffice calendar -- as running from the weekend before Thanksgiving through the frame after New Year's. But three sessions before Turkey Day, distributors are already lining up their most prized releases.

To wit: Paramount has slotted DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar" sequel for today rather than wait for the holiday.

"It's a movie that feels like it should play strongly all the way through Thanksgiving vacation," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says.

A week from today comes what will likely be one of the fourth quarter's biggest releases: the James Bond thriller "Quantum of Solace," from Sony and MGM. The Daniel Craig starrer is considered a lock to play strongly well into December, especially considering its huge U.K. opening, much like Sony's November 2006 Bond opener "Casino Royale."

" 'Casino Royale' was able to hold on to upwards of 1,500 playdates through Christmas," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer recalls.

Two weeks from now, over the Nov. 21 frame, wide openers will include the season's biggest teens-and-tweens title, "Twilight," from newbie distributor Summit. Based on a series of high school vampire novels, the potential franchise-starter could sink its teeth into some serious business if the marketplace matches its prerelease Internet hype.

The target audience for Disney's 3-D animated feature "Bolt" (Nov. 26) will overlap a bit with that for "Twilight." But the holiday weekend should allow both to play strongly through their first 10 days. It also could bode well for Warner Bros.' Reese Witherspoon-Vince Vaughn comedy "Four Christmases" (Nov. 26).

"Our second weekend will be propped up by the nature of holiday moviegoing habits," Summit chief Rob Friedman says. "Once you start approaching November, it's always gotten more competitive, and this Christmas is even a bit more crowded than in the past. So it's definitely is going to be very competitive, but I think we have a unique movie."

After Thanksgiving, the holiday release schedule takes on an awards-oriented flavor. Such films as Universal's "Frost/Nixon," Focus Features' "Milk" and the Weinstein Co.'s "The Reader" will launch platforming campaigns to capitalize on kudos considerations, setting up theatrical runs well into January.

Yet Fox's remake of the sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a pure commercial play, with some suggesting that the Keanu Reeves starrer will prove one of the holiday season's top grossers.

"Day" breaks on Dec. 12, or just 16 days after Fox unspools its Baz Luhrmann-helmed epic "Australia" (Nov. 26), starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. The studio is looking to make enough holiday loot to compensate for its skimpy summer tally at the boxoffice.

"I will not hide from the fact that we had a poor summer," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder says. "The pictures didn't work as well as we had hoped, but it looks like we should have a strong holiday period."

That's not to suggest that the period won't be extremely competitive. Two films boasting particularly top-notch talent open over the Dec. 19 frame, just before Christmas.

Sony offers Will Smith in "Seven Pounds," in which the can't-miss boxoffice darling plays a depressed IRS agent who falls in love. And Jim Carrey toplines Warners' comedy "Yes Man," perhaps the studio's best shot at a big holiday haul after its move to postpone "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" until July.

Despite the shift of its "Potter" sequel, Warners remains a big favorite to finish first in domestic market share. As for awards-season prestige, the studio has high hopes for Clint Eastwood's gang-themed "Gran Torino," set for limited release Dec. 17.

"His performance is outstanding, and the story is very topical and heartwarming," Warners distribution boss Dan Fellman says.

Like "Torino," Paramount's DreamWorks-produced "Benjamin Button" -- which Warners will distribute overseas -- is arguably one of those rare films with potential to score big with both critics and moviegoers. An adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story directed by David Fincher ("Zodiac"), "Button" is one of an eye-popping five films set to unspool domestically on Christmas Day.

"Any time you're aiming a movie at adults, you're depending on a more consistent playtime rather than on a big opening followed by a big drop-off," Moore says. "And when you go from Christmas Day through New Year's weekend, you have an 11-day run in which every day is almost like a weekend day."

Laden with marquee-worthy talent, Yuletide wide openers include Disney's Adam Sandler starrer "Bedtime Stories"; Fox's romantic comedy "Marley and Me," starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson; Lionsgate's Samuel L. Jackson-toplined "The Spirit"; and MGM's basketball drama "Hurricane Season," starring Forest Whitaker. A day later, MGM/UA debuts the Tom Cruise Nazi thriller "Valkyrie"; Paramount Vantage unspools the literary adaptation "Revolutionary Road," pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet for the first time since "Titanic"; and Overture sends out its Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson starrer "Last Chance Harvey."

Throw in a number of notable market expansions for glossy artpics, including the Ron Howard-directed "Frost/Nixon" and the Weinstein Co.'s "Shanghai" with John Cusack, and the moviegoing public should be shouting "Ho, ho, ho!" -- or perhaps simply calling "Enough!"

Holiday tallies form a relatively small slice of the industry's annual boxoffice pie, with grosses from the seven-week boxoffice season representing an average 16% of 12-month totals over the past three years in EDI data. But the figure is a bit deceiving, as the Yuletide season serves as a launchpad for so many films playing strongly into the winter season.

A robust period of moviegoing would be welcome news for those keeping an eye on year-over-year comparisons. So far, 2008 is tracking roughly even with last year's industry grosses over a similar span of time, and there's broad optimism over prospects of a 12-month uptick in boxoffice, if not admissions.

But it could be a photo finish.

"Last year's October and November numbers were so weak, it would be hard not to beat them," National Association of Theatre Owners chief John Fithian says. "But December may be tougher."