LOS ANGELES, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- This year's holiday movie schedule is shaping up as one of the most competitive ever.
Beginning with Disney's "Monsters, Inc." on Nov. 2, and running through Christmas Day -- when Sony Pictures Entertainment releases "Ali" and Universal brings out "A Beautiful Mind" -- movie studios will hit the marketplace with their best shots, hoping to finish the year with a box-office kick.
The box-office is already one of the bright spots in an otherwise down U.S. economy. If moviegoers buy what Hollywood is selling, the entertainment industry could make up for at least a bit of the losses the industry has been incurring ever since ad revenues first began to go soft early this year.
In past years, the holiday season typically began at Thanksgiving. Studios rolled out their big attractions -- especially family pictures like "Toy Story" -- to coincide with the start of the Christmas selling season.
In recent years, the competition for the prime box-office real estate over Thanksgiving weekend became so crowded that studios learned they could profit by releasing big pictures a week or 10 days ahead of the actual holiday weekend.
This year, with Warner Bros. already claiming thanksgiving weekend for its own by releasing "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" on Nov. 16, Disney decided to program its big holiday entry aggressively and boldly. Not content to release the latest entry from Pixar Animation Studios one week before "Harry Potter," Disney established a new start date for the holiday season by programming "Monsters, Inc." for a Nov. 2 release.
That gives the computer animated feature two full weekends to establish its credentials with family audiences, and an opportunity to benefit from anticipated positive word of mouth once "Harry Potter" has vacuumed up the majority of the box-office dollars from Nov. 16 through the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Paramount Pictures also launches its first major release of the holiday season on Nov. 2, but "Domestic Disturbance" is in no way competing with the family audience that will line up for "Monsters, Inc." Some precocious kiddies will be interested in seeing John Travolta and Vince Vaughn in a story about a boy who claims to have witnessed a murder and can't get anyone but his dad to believe him -- but the family audience will be more interested in the animated monsters than the human kind.
The same weekend features "The One," starring Jet Li as a sheriff's deputy engaged in a struggle with an alternate universe version of himself -- a picture that is likely to have strong appeal among teen and young adult audiences.
On Nov. 9, Fox presents the latest Farrelly Brothers comedy, "Shallow Hal," starring Gwyneth Paltrow as an avoirdupois over-achiever and Jack Black ("High Fidelity") as the man who sees only a living doll when he looks at her.
On Nov. 21, Fox appears to be trying its hand at counter-programming with the release of "Black Knight," starring Martin Lawrence as a worker at the mythical Medieval World amusement park who gets smacked in the head and wakes up in 14th century England. The ethnic take on Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" may find an audience among urban moviegoers who prefer it to "Harry Potter," but "Potter" is shaping up as a genuine crossover hit with appeal among all races and age groups and both genders.
The same weekend will see Universal Pictures' release of "Spy Game," with Robert Redford as a CIA operative who is ready to retire when he learns that his protégé -- played by Brad Pitt -- is under arrest for espionage in China. No doubt, Universal is hoping for better things from this Redford movie than DreamWorks managed from the current release, "The Last Castle," which opened to lackluster business and so-so reviews.
On Dec. 7, Warner Bros. -- with its hands still full, no doubt, from the "Harry Potter" project -- will release "Ocean's Eleven," Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh's remake of the 1960 heist caper that starred Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. The new take has George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Carl Reiner and Soderbergh favorite, Don Cheadle.
The following week, Sony Pictures Entertainment goes where "Scream" and "Scary Movie" have gone before -- in their own ways -- with "Not Another Teen Movie," a parody of teen movies featuring a group of stereotypical teens enduring high school.
Also on Dec. 14, "The Royal Tenenbaums" -- a comedy starring Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gene Hackman about a highly dysfunctional family of geniuses -- opens in Los Angeles and New York. Disney will open the movie wide on Dec. 21.
Warner Bros. opens Jim Carrey's new movie, "The Majestic" on Dec. 21. Working for the first time with director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile") Carrey tries his hand at a dramatic performance as a Hollywood writer accused of being a communist sympathizer, who loses his memory in a car crash and makes a new life in a small California town.
The second film of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Two Towers," is due in theaters in 2002. The third installment, "The Return of the King," is scheduled for a 2003 release.
Two of the highest-profile projects of the season are scheduled to be released on Christmas Day -- "Ali" and "A Beautiful Mind." They may end up competing for supremacy both at the box office and for top honors during the upcoming awards season, but there will be no real face-off on Christmas, because "A Beautiful Mind" is only opening in select cities before opening wide later on.
"Ali" features Will Smith as the three-time heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of us title when he refused to be inducted into the Army during Vietnam, and went on to become a beloved champion and a worldwide celebrity. The project was directed by Michael Mann ("The Insider," "Heat," "The Last of the Mohicans"), from a screenplay written by Gregory Allen Howard ("Remember the Titans").
"A Beautiful Mind" features Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr., the math genius who was diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic, but overcame his troubles to win the Nobel Prize. The movie is already generating Oscar buzz for Crowe, for director Ron Howard and for best picture.
While "Ali" cleans up with the grown-up audience, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon should do well with the younger audience with its Christmas release, "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," a feature version of the popular new TV cartoon series.
On Dec. 26, Disney releases its final picture of 2001, "High Heels and Low Lifes," starring Minnie Driver as a nurse who hears about a bank heist as she eavesdrops on a phone conversation. She and a friend then conspire to blackmail the robbers.
No release date has been nailed down yet for Paramount's highly anticipated Tom Cruise movie, "Vanilla Sky," written and directed by Cruise's "Jerry Maguire" collaborator, Cameron Crowe.
Miramax -- which changed its plans for a holiday release for Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" -- has not set a date for the new comedy, "40 Days and 40 Nights." Josh Hartnett ("Pearl Harbor") stars as a man who is hurt in love and decides to give up sex for Lent -- only to have the woman of his dreams show up in his life and test his ability to keep a vow.
Studio executives may be excused for having conflicted feelings about the upcoming holiday season.
On the one hand, it is a time of great bounty in the movie marketplace. Even in the current down economy, there is reason to expect that movies will rake in big grosses this holiday season, and maybe even break last year's record grosses for November and December -- $1.6 billion. Currently, the U.S. box-office is still running 9 percent ahead of last year's pace, despite the larger economic downturn.
But even though there is a prospect of moviegoers showing up in large numbers, there is no guarantee -- there is never a guarantee -- that the public will connect with each and every Hollywood offering.
Massive numbers of people are expected to show up at the box office with their pockets full of money, just waiting to be entertained, and no studio executive wants to be responsible for the big-budget, high-profile picture that stiffed at the box office at a time like that.