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And they're off! The race is on for movie studios vying for your money

Hollywood, start your engines

Holiday movie race heating up

A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly report
From Correspondent Robin Groth and Producer Bob Melisso

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- Hollywood is readying for the second major race of the year. Following a blockbuster summer dominated by movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "There's Something About Mary," the holiday movie season promises just as much diversity in content.

And there's plenty at stake for those who make the movies and distribute them: money, jobs, reputations, and, well, even more money.

Packed into the frantic period between Thanksgiving and Christmas are 17 major film openings.

"Christmas and Thanksgiving is really the place where movies can make a killing at the box office," says Entertainment Weekly movie editor Mark Harris. "Movie grosses just soar for every single movie," earning about $2 million more per day at the box office than during the longer, and thus more lucrative, summer season.

"Meet Joe Black" is one for four Universal films out for the holiday season

Universal respect

Going into the season, Paramount is -- so far -- this year's lead horse in earnings. Disney is ahead of 20th Century Fox by a nose, with Sony rounding out the top four. Coming in last of the major studios is Universal, in ninth place.

"There's no question that Universal has a lot riding on this fall," says Andrew Hines, who follows the box office for Daily Variety. "The company has been, you know, really in the dumps for most of the year. They haven't really had a hit this year."

Variety editor Peter Bart says Universal's troubles actually started when "Meet Joe Black," a remake of the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday," missed its summer release date.

"Universal had hoped that 'Meet Joe Black' would be their big summer picture, and they just couldn't get it ready," says Bart. "So the only picture they had left for summer, basically, was 'Out Of Sight.' That was their big summer picture -- George Clooney picture. It didn't really work very well."

So Universal is trying to make up lost ground by entering four movies over the holidays.

The fisherman with the hook returns in "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer"

'Meet Joe Black' is a gamble

First out of the gate is "Meet Joe Black." It opened this past weekend before the official start of the holiday season, following a trend for some studios to get a movie established before the big crush of Thanksgiving week openings.

The movie grossed $15.6 million in its debut weekend, third on the box office list.

Harris says "Meet Joe Black" is a big bet by last-place Universal Studios.

"'Meet Joe Black' is a gamble," Harris says. "It's a very, very expensive movie. It is trading almost entirely on the appeal of Brad Pitt. It's obviously going for an audience of women 25 and older, and hoping to get a lot of men and couples in there, too."

Keeping "Joe Black" company this past weekend is a Sony screamer.

"'I Still Know What You Did Last Summer' is going for the 'Scream' audience," says Harris. "They want teen-agers who are just hungry for another horror movie."

"I Still Know ..." came in second this past weekend, reaping $17.5 million. Sony's marketing chief, Bob Levin, had originally planned to open the movie on November 20, but juggled the release date to avoid competing with the Will Smith/Gene Hackman movie, "Enemy of the State."

Levin, like all marketing chiefs, essentially plays poker with a calendar.

"Some of us are bullies, and we think we've got the strongest hand and we'll play a card very early," Levin says.

Sample two new holiday releases for yourself:

"Meet Joe Black"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k

"I Still Know What You Did Last Summer"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k

'Celebrity' sighting

November 20 will also see the opening of "Rugrats: The Movie," and the Woody Allen film "Celebrity," with an appearance by Leonardo DiCaprio.

"'Celebrity,' we can factor out right away," says Harris. "It's a Woody Allen movie. His movies never make money. This movie will not make money. Ten Leonardo DiCaprios in it will not turn it into a blockbuster."

The next weekend sees the competition really heat up when the studios make the big Thanksgiving push. Opening are "A Bug's Life," the sequel to "Babe," Drew Barrymore's comedy "Home Fries," and "A Civil Action," John Travolta's legal drama, which is being positioned as an Oscar contender.

"This is where it gets tough," says Harris. "Is there room for 'A Bug's Life' and 'Babe' and the second weekend of 'Rugrats?' No, there is not. That is spreading a single audience, which is young children and families, too thin.

"So, something is going to suffer. I don't know whether it's 'Rugrats' that's going to take a steep drop, or 'A Bug's Life,' because people will feel that they've seen it before in 'Antz.' Or 'Babe,' because people thought that once is enough."

But Harris says "A Civil Action" should benefit from the onslaught of children's movies.

"I think that's good news for 'A Civil Action,' which is the first real prestige movie of the season, and one that is not competing for the same audiences," Harris says.

Warm and fuzzy "You've Got Mail" is expected to do well during the holiday season

Zig when they zag

For smaller studios, the trick to competing against the big guys is to get into a race you can win.

"We try to zig when everybody else is zagging," says Mitchell Goldman of New Line Cinema.

Goldman distributes and markets movies for New Line, a medium-sized studio owned by Time-Warner, which also owns CNN. Goldman had a movie ready for Christmas, "Blast From the Past," but he moved it.

"It's a perfect Christmas movie, but as we saw the competition come into place -- 'You've Got Mail' from Warner Brothers, which is surely going to be a blockbuster; 'Stepmom,' with Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts -- we decided to pass on a wide release at Christmas," says Goldman.

Universal is opening "Psycho," a shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock film, on December 4 during a lull before the big Christmas rush.

Two weeks later, "You've Got Mail" opens with the likable Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. And while mom and dad are getting the mail, Spielberg's DreamWorks is counting on the kids parking in front of their big, animated Moses fable, "Prince of Egypt."

"'Prince of Egypt' is an enormous gamble for DreamWorks," says Harris. "It's a very expensive film. The question is: can they be all things to all people? Can they sell it as an action movie to young men, and a family movie to families, and a religious movie to what they're calling the faith community?"

"The Thin Red Line"

Christmas Day

Christmas Day has the highest number of studio releases for any day of the season.

"That's a little too much in the way of product opening on Christmas day, actually," says Variety's Bart. "They're going to bump each other off. That's a shame."

Why the logjam of releases? Simple.

"That is money, money, money for 10 days around Christmas and New Year's," Harris says. "Everything makes a lot of money."

The remake of the 1949 movie "Mighty Joe Young" hopes to snag some of that cash on Christmas Day. And then there's the star-studded war film "The Thin Red Line," heralding the return of director Terrence Malick after a 20-year absence.

Also opening on Christmas is the previously mentioned "Stepmom" with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. Directed by Chris Columbus, it's an Oscar contender aimed at families and women.

Also on Christmas: Robin William's "Patch Adams," where he plays a doctor who heals with humor. A sci-fi thriller, "The Faculty," rounds out the pack.

But Harris says one of the real joys of the holiday movie season is finding an overlooked gem. "A movie that comes out of left field, then captures your imagination in a way that big studio movies don't always," says Harris. "We'll just have to wait and see what it is."

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