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Holiday movie glut tries to satisfy studio appetites

Paul Vercammon

By Paul Vercammen
CNN Showbiz Correspondent

November 27, 1998
Web posted at: 8:25 a.m. EST (1325 GMT)

In this story:

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Meg Ryan, Robin Williams and a chatty pig: It must be time again for the annual holiday movie glut.

Moviegoers in the United States and Canada spent almost $280 million at the box office during Christmas week alone last year, according to Exhibitor Relations, a box office research company.

meg Ryan
Meg Ryan, here at the Oscars, has two holiday-release movies  

And U.S.-based movie studios on average have done about 17 percent of their annual business during the holiday season, from around Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, according to the company.

Studios naturally want a piece of that financial action. Then, consider that Oscar season is just around the corner.

The combination amounts to a kind of Hollywood twist on Darwin.

In this version of natural selection, the goal is to generate big audiences, and fast. Otherwise, the species is headed for extinction in theaters -- and into the afterlife on video shelves.

Evidence of abundance

Consider the potential just on Christmas Day, when a cluster of big-star, big-budget movies debuts, including:

  • "Patch Adams," in which Robin Williams plays a doctor with an unconventional bedside manner.

  • "Stepmom," starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in a family drama that promises to send some viewers reaching for tissues.

  • "A Civil Action," with John Travolta playing a lawyer taking on big business on behalf of families whose children died of cancer.

  • "The Thin Red Line," which pairs Travolta with Sean Penn in a nightmarish dispatch from World War II's Battle of Guadalcanal.

    Simple math might suggest there are simply not enough moviegoers to make all of the holiday releases a hit.

    What's more, the Christmas Day movies must contend with holdovers also timed to snare a share of seasonal spending. They include:

  • "You've Got Mail," which teams up Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan again for romance, this time cyber-related.

  • "Psycho," starring Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, who put the Bates Motel franchise back in business.

  • "A Simple Plan," involving Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton and a dangerous bundle of loot in the frozen Midwest.

    Tom Hanks
    Tom Hanks in "You've Got Mail"  

    Oh, is it almost Oscar season?

    The late year movie-mania isn't just about money. It's also about a date: December 31, the release deadline for eligibility for next year's Academy Awards.

    Some of the movies hoping to survive the great holiday shakeout may also legitimately dream of some award-season recognition.

    The year-end deadline also inspires the release of a number of relatively small-budget movies in which people talk in English accents, wear lace and/or battle physical or emotional hardships.

    This year's big-dreams brigade includes:

  • "The Theory of Flight," in which Helena Bonham Carter confronts a terminal illness.

  • "Shakespeare in Love," in which Gwyneth Paltrow receives sonnets from the young William Shakespeare.

  • "Hilary & Jackie," starring Emily Watson as a cellist with multiple sclerosis.

  • "Little Voice," in which a shy girl expresses herself only in song.

  • "Hurlyburly," featuring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Meg Ryan and Hollywood decadence.

    Babe the pig
    A scene from "Babe: Pig In The City"  

    Peppy bugs and talking pork

    In one of the ironies of seasonal abundance, the sex and drugs of "Hurlyburly" will likely show up in at least some of the same cineplexes as peppy bugs, talking pork and other children's fare.

    The crowded holiday marketplace reserves plenty of screens for freely spending youngsters on vacation. Several movies are calling their names, including:

  • "A Bug's Life," Disney's computer-animated tale from Pixar, the creators of "Toy Story."

  • "Prince of Egypt," DreamWorks' animation of the story of Moses.

  • "Jack Frost," starring Michael Keaton, Kelly Preston and a special snowman.

  • "Babe: Pig in the City," in which the aforementioned talking pig goes to New York.

    We'll stop there, though your local movie listings may go on longer. Suffice it to say, the next several weeks will bring a gigantic hodgepodge of children's movies, Oscar hopefuls and blockbuster wannabes.

    But it may take moviegoers through Valentine's Day to catch up on sleepers and find the hidden jewels overlooked during the end-of-year holiday hype.

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