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Holiday movies: Big sequels, Oscar hopes

Season brings a bounty of booty to the megaplex

By Meriah Doty

Disney's "Santa Clause 2" kicked off the holiday season early for moviegoers this year.

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(CNN) -- The holiday movie season is usually a time for Oscar hopefuls and big-budget crowd-pleasers. This year's slate is no different.

"There's something for everyone," said Entertainment Weekly Senior Editor Doug Brod.

In an effort to maximize profits and viewership, Hollywood has extended the concept of "holiday season" almost back to Halloween. Where, once upon a time, the season would run from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve, this year the holiday cheer started spreading with the November 1 opening of "Santa Clause 2."

It was a good move for Disney, "Santa's" studio: The sequel dwarfed Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson's comedy "I Spy" at the box office, which also opened on November 1.

"If they want to face the least amount of competition they go earlier. That's why Disney released 'Santa Clause 2' way before Thanksgiving," Brod said. "Disney hopes it'll play through December."

Season's series

"The Santa Clause 2" is just one of many sequels Hollywood studios have set for release during the holidays. The latest Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," opened November 15. It's to be followed November 22 by the latest James Bond installment, "Die Another Day," and "The Friday After Next," Ice Cube's third "Friday" flick in which he starred, wrote and produced.

December releases will continue the trend: "Analyze That," Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal's follow-up to "Analyze This," opens December 6; "Star Trek: Nemesis" follows on December 13; and blockbuster sequel -- and Oscar hopeful -- "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" arrives December 18.

Harry Potter
Harry Potter, played by Daniel Radcliffe, tackles new obstacles in "Chamber of Secrets."

Given the number of sequels, "It's looking like summer a little bit," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Company, which tracks and analyzes box office film sales.

But the studios may be planning even more for the future, Brod said. "I'm not sure there are so many sequels this Christmas. Next year we can expect to see 15 sequels," he said.

With series movies and a few other films battling for the top winter box-office position, which one will come out on top?

"'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings' have the most riding on the line," Dergarabedian said. Gamblers, take note: lists the film as a 3-1 shot to beat "Spider-Man" for largest opening weekend in history.

But Brod says Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" (December 25), starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio as a lawman chasing down an imposter, has a chance to contend with "Rings" and "Potter" when the dust settles on the holiday box office.

Either way, Hollywood's hoping the public is in a spending mood. "November through December releases account for 17 percent of the total year at the box office on average," Dergarabedian said.

Oscar hype

"Chicago," adapted from the Broadway musical, has received a considerable amount of Oscar-buzz.

This is also a period where many films with Oscar hopes hit theaters.

"The loudest buzz we've been hearing is on 'Chicago' (December 27) for not only best picture but the acting awards -- Renee Zellweger for best actress," Brod said. "Chicago" is based on the long-running Kander & Ebb Broadway show. The composers are no stranger to Oscar glory: their 1966 work, "Cabaret," won eight awards for the 1972 Bob Fosse-directed movie version.

Another film that's got insiders buzzing is "Antwone Fisher," the directorial debut of Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington.

" 'Antwone Fisher' is getting a lot of buzz ... people are talking about Denzel for best director," Brod said.

The film will have stiff competition at the box office. It opens December 20, the same day that Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated, high-budget, DiCaprio-starring epic "Gangs of New York" is set for release.

Brod added that "Far From Heaven," starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, has received Oscar buildup, as has rapper Eminem's movie debut in "8 Mile." Both films were released November 8.

Other potential Academy Award contenders include "The Hours" (December 27) starring Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, and based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; Steven Soderbergh's sci-fi romance "Solaris" (November 27), with George Clooney; and "Catch Me If You Can."

And one cannot rule out "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" because, Brod noted, "[The first] 'Rings' had 14 nominations and 4 wins last year. ['Towers'] could replicate that success."

Short days, bleak comedies

Comedies can often be the most successful box-office films, but this year's themes have a more serious tone. The movies that are receiving the most praise are "stranger, dark comedies like Jack Nicholson in 'About Schmidt' [December 13], 'Adaptation' [December 6] starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep and the George Clooney-directed 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' [December 27]," said Brod.

"Adaptation" is based on Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief"; "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" on game show producer Chuck Barris' autobiography. Both were written by "Being John Malkovich" scribe Charlie Kaufman, whose fertile mind had particular fun with "Adaptation."

Brod also said silly slapstick comedies like the animated "Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights" (November 27) and Rob Schneider's "The Hot Chick" (December 13) have received virtually no advance word. Not that they will necessarily suffer at the box office.

A holiday drama that's been hyped as a crowd-pleaser is Denzel Washington's
A holiday drama that's been hyped as a crowd-pleaser is Denzel Washington's "Antwone Fisher."

Romantic comedy is in short supply. About the only major film from of that style is "Two Weeks Notice" (December 20), starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant.

With all the big budgets and big stars, will there be any sleepers on the level of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"?

Brod said "Antwone Fisher," distributed by Fox Searchlight, the smaller boutique art movie arm with 20th Century Fox, has a shot. It cost less than $15 million to make.

He said the film has the potential to enter "Big Fat" territory, in terms of ticket sales, because audiences and reports so far are overwhelmingly positive. "It's supposed to be a real crowd pleaser," he said.

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