There has not been much buzz about it, but the movie studios are in striking distance of a gift that would look spectacular under any tree -- a $9 billion year.
In keeping with the movie industry's practice of forcing the start of each new season as early as possible, the Christmas holiday slate actually launched the day after Halloween, with the release of "The Santa Clause 2," starring Tim Allen in the sequel to his 1994 hit. The picture grossed $60 million in its first two weekends, but it will have to settle for crumbs this week when "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" arrives in theaters.
The second movie adaptation of author J.K. Rowling's phenomenal series of juvenile novels will vacuum up most of the box-office business when it opens Friday -- although analysts expect the new Eminem movie "8 Mile" to do well in its second weekend, given that much of its potential audience has little in common with the Potter crowd.
When "Chamber of Secrets" enters its second weekend on Nov. 22, it will have stiff competition from "Die Another Day." Producers apparently don't feel the need to wait and see how the marketplace receives the new Bond picture -- they've already invited Pierce Brosnan to come back for the 22nd installment in the franchise, and have signed Halle Berry to reprise her role as Jinx.
Nov. 22 also is the release date for Kevin Klein's latest, "The Emperor's Club" -- about a prep school classics teacher who takes on an out-of-control group of students. Also on the 22nd, Ice Cube and Mike Epps show up in "Friday After Next," a Christmas-themed sequel to their hits "Friday" and "Next Friday." And Michael Caine stars as a British journalist in Saigon in "The Quiet American" -- based on Graham Greene's 1955 novel about foreign policy bungles in French Indochina prior to the Vietnam War.
The major releases scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend include the animated comedy "Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights," Disney's "Treasure Planet" and the George Clooney-Steven Soderbergh collaboration "Solaris."
"Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights" is about a 30-something who avoids jail during the holidays by performing community service as a youth basketball league referee -- and winds up rubbing elbows with the New York Knicks.
"Solaris" features Clooney in a space station orbiting a strange ocean world, and dealing with the disturbing appearances of dead members of an earlier expedition.
"Treasure Planet" also is in outer space -- setting Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "Treasure Island" on a spaceship and turning the villainous Long John Silver into a cyborg.
On Dec. 6, Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal open in "Analyze That." In the sequel to their 1999 hit comedy "Analyze This," De Niro's mafia boss turns to Crystal's analyst for counseling after a prison stretch.
The same weekend will bring "Adaptation," a fanciful account of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's maddeningly frustrating attempt to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction book "The Orchid Thief." Nicolas Cage stars as Kaufman and Meryl Streep stars as Orlean.
On Dec 13, Rob Schneider turns up in his latest comedy "The Hot Chick," Jennifer Lopez opens in the Cinderella-themed "Maid in Manhattan," and "Star Trek: Nemesis" opens. Oscar-handicappers, though, may be pre-occupied with "About Schmidt," starring Jack Nicholson as a retired, widowed insurance agent who has to re-evaluate his life when his daughter marries a man he has no use for.
Box-office expectations are high for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," which opens on Dec. 18. The second installment of director Peter Jackson's adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy promises to deliver more action and less exposition than last year's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."
Dec. 20, the Friday before Christmas, brings lots of goodies to U.S. theaters -- including "Gangs of New York," "The Wild Thornberrys" and "Antwone Fisher," the directorial debut of two-time Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington.
"Antwone Fisher" is based on the life of the title character, who wrote the screenplay while he was employed as a security guard at Sony Pictures. It's about his victory over anger and violence, apparently the residue of a brutal childhood.
"The Wild Thornberrys" -- based on the animated Nickelodeon series of the same name -- will position itself as the family friendly alternative on a weekend that will also see the release of a new Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock romantic comedy, "Two Weeks Notice," as well as Spike Lee's latest, "The 25th Hour," and the police thriller "Narc."
Grant plays a rich developer who is helpless without his lawyer, Bullock, but makes her miserable anyway -- so much so that she quits. The movie reunites Bullock with "Miss Congeniality" writer Marc Lawrence. In "The 25th Hour," Edward Norton stars as a drug dealer trying to make the most of his last two days of freedom before beginning a seven-year stretch in prison.
DiCaprio fans will get a double-dip on Christmas Day, when the "Titanic" star joins Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can." DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr. -- a true-life conman who passed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a college professor while writing $2.5 million worth of bad checks. Hanks plays the FBI agent who tracked him around the world.
Christmas also brings the release of several kid-oriented titles, including "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," Disney's re-release of "The Lion King" on Imax and Robert Benigni's "Pinocchio."
Post-Christmas releases include several high-profile projects -- including the movie versions of the Broadway musicals "Chicago" and "Nicholas Nickelby," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Hours" and game show host Chuck Barris' memoir, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah star in "Chicago." Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman star in "The Hours," a story about two women and their affinity for the writer Virginia Woolf.
Sam Rockwell stars as Barris, the over-the-top producer and host of "The Gong Show," who claimed in his autobiography that he led a double life as a CIA recruiter. Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts also appear in George Clooney's feature directorial debut.
So far this year, the U.S. box office has rung up overall grosses totaling $7.566 billion. That's 12 percent ahead of last year's pace, when the box office was on its way to taking in $8.132 billion for the year.
It appears $10 billion for the year is too lofty a goal, but at the rate the box-office has been going this year -- and given the number of potential blockbusters headed for the screen between now and the end of the year -- it's safe to say the movie business will finish 2002 with a grand total of well over $9 billion.
Santa Claus is definitely coming to town.