LOS ANGELES, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- The 2001 holiday movie season just got under way, with the release of the Disney-Pixar animated feature, "Monsters, Inc.," but Hollywood studio executives are already immersed in planning for the summer of '02.
Release schedules are always a work in progress, and things could really change between now and next Memorial Day, when the summer season begins, but movie fans appear to be in for a number of big-budget sequels and a bunch of action pictures whose releases had been planned for this year -- only to be put off in reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
According to a report in Daily Variety, studios already plan to release 26 movies next summer -- three more than they had on the tentative schedule this time last year.
One reason for the extra titles is that studios bulked up on products early this year, in anticipation of possible strikes by actors and writers. The unions got new contracts without striking, and the studios would up with shelves full of unreleased movies.
At the moment, next summer's schedule has at least half a dozen "event" movies -- along the lines of this year's "Pearl Harbor," "Shrek," "Planet of the Apes" and "Jurassic Park III."
They include New Line's "Austin Powers in Goldmember," Sony's "Spider-Man," "Men In Black 2," and "Stuart Little 2," Fox's "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and "Minority Report," with Steven Spielberg directing Tom Cruise.
Plans call for releasing Arnold Schwarzenegger's action picture, "Collateral Damage," and Nicolas Cage's World War II drama, "Windtalkers" -- both of which were postponed following the terrorist attacks.
Another movie that was postponed from a planned 2001 release -- but not because of the terrorist attacks -- is Martin Scorsese's collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz for Miramax on "Gangs of New York."
There was also supposed to be a movie version of H.G. Wells classic sci-fi tale, "The Time Machine," in theaters this Christmas, but that project was pulled from DreamWorks' schedule and has not been rescheduled. DreamWorks also held Tom Hanks' upcoming movie, "The Road to Perdition," for the 2002 schedule -- most likely for spring, however, not summer.
The 2002 schedule features the movie version of the long-running TV cartoon, "Scooby-Doo" -- a blend of live-action and computer animation -- and "Spy Kids 2," the sequel to this year's surprise hit from writer-director Robert Rodriguez.
"Insomnia" features Al Pacino and Robin Williams in the story of a police detective who accidentally shoots his partner and is furnished with an alibi -- only to find himself the subject of a blackmail plot.
Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy show up in "Showtime," described as a spoof of the buddy-cop movie genre in which two very different kinds of cops are assigned to work together as stars of a new reality-based TV show.
The 2002 schedule also envisions the release of a new Jackie Chan action comedy, "The Tuxedo," and a family picture, "Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron."
Matthew McConaughey returns to the screen in a sci-fi tale from Disney, "Reign of Fire" -- the story of a gang of fire-breathing dragons emerges from beneath the earth's surface and seems to be setting fire to everything in sight in an effort to take over the world.
Disney also has "Signs" -- M. Night Shyamalan's highly anticipated follow-up to "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable." It stars Mel Gibson in the story of a Philadelphia-area farm family that finds mysterious crop circles in their fields.
MGM's "A Guy Thing" stars Jason Lee and Julia Stiles in a comedy about a man who wakes up the morning after his bachelor party in bed with a strange woman -- and figures he must have cheated on his fiancée.
Affleck's good buddy, Matt Damon, is scheduled to hit the screen once more in Universal's remake of the 1988 screen version of Robert Ludlum's novel, "The Bourne Identity." Damon stars as a man who washes ashore with no memory but lots of bullet wounds -- and soon finds himself in a race to regain his memory and escape assassins.
Jennifer Lopez is scheduled to show up in 2002 in "Enough," as an abused woman who discovers that her husband is far from the man of her dreams. She tries to get away from him with their daughter, but he pursues her relentlessly -- and she decides the only way out is to kill him.
Fresh off his star-making turn in "The Fast and the Furious" this summer, Vin Diesel reunites with "F/F" director Rob Cohen for "XXX," as a charismatic extreme sports competitor who is recruited by the government to break up a Russian crime ring.
Most of those titles will play next summer, or close to it. The actual schedule, however, is another matter.
As one studio executive told Variety, summer dates are "carved in Jell-O."
Some pictures carry enough weight that, once a studio stakes out a given weekend to open them, the others understand perfectly that that weekend is spoken for. "Harry Potter" is a prime example of the 800-pound gorilla staking a claim to prime box-office real estate, and everyone else clearing a wide berth.
In most instances, however, release schedules take shape as part of an elaborate ritual that the studios perform -- setting and unsetting dates according to an unwritten code that only the studios and their marketers understand.
It closely resembles the games adolescents play in the weeks leading up to the big dance. The most popular kids usually know well in advance who they're going with, while the rest go through the tedious, painstaking process of figuring out how to get hooked up with the best date that's still available -- and avoid the humiliation of playing it wrong.
There is one thing all of Hollywood's executives can agree on -- a common goal for the summer of '02.
They would love dearly to break the record set this summer, when the U.S. box office took in $2.95 billion.