Film distributors, which in the past have found room for their classier, adult-oriented fare on a relatively uncrowded winter release schedule, are suddenly facing a glut of ambitious pictures fighting for space in theaters and audience attention.
In other words, January is beginning to look a lot like July in the movie business.
The pileup appears to have occurred largely because mainstream studios such as Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone unit are aggressively playing a year-end game of Oscar positioning that was once left largely to Disney's specialty arm, Miramax Films, and smaller independent distributors. Hollywood's upscale films also have been squeezed by some surprisingly strong "popcorn" pictures, including Warner Bros.' "Kangaroo Jack," Columbia's "National Security" and 20th Century Fox's "Just Married," all of which opened this month.
In all, 34 pictures are scheduled for release this January, up 42% from 24 films a year earlier.
"It's not just that it's crowded," said Jack Foley, distribution chief for the Focus Features unit at Vivendi Universal, which has "The Pianist" and "Far From Heaven" in current release.
"For the first time, the big studios have broken in with this volume of high-end films.... It's a different land of the giants," Foley said.
Virtually every major studio is now mimicking a time-tested Miramax strategy, which involves releasing one or more sophisticated niche films as late as possible in December to qualify for the Oscars and other prizes, then expanding to more theaters in January and February as the awards season builds. In the past, Miramax used that pattern to make a success out of pictures such as "Chocolat," "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient."
Similarly, USA Films took in $124 million at the box office with "Traffic" by taking that tack in 2001, while Sony Pictures Classics that same year used the winter months to rack up $128 million in ticket sales for its "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
But this year's crush may make it difficult for any picture to achieve critical mass in the marketplace.
"It will be hard for any single film to break from the pack and become a phenomenon," suggested Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co.
Although the year's large array of pictures is pushing up marketing budgets and raising the specter of box-office cannibalization, it has provided a feast for audiences.
AOL Time Warner Inc.'s New Line Cinema, better known for lower-brow movies such as its "Austin Powers" series, is pushing "About Schmidt" with Jack Nicholson this winter. Columbia, meanwhile, has director Spike Jonze's quirky "Adaptation," with Nicolas Cage.
Disney's Touchstone Pictures is behind director Spike Lee's "25th Hour," starring Ed Norton, while Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, in partnership with Miramax, has "The Hours," starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.
None of those prize contenders has yet taken a sizable bite out of the box office. But "The Hours," which won a Golden Globe for best drama, and Miramax's "Chicago," with the Globe for best comedy/musical, are expected to hang on through the March 23 Academy Awards ceremony and beyond, eventually becoming hits.
Perhaps no company is caught in this year's squeeze quite as tightly as Miramax, which is suffering from competition partly of its own making. In addition to its share of "The Hours," Miramax is juggling its high-budget "Gangs of New York" -- which has taken in only about $60 million at the box office despite its reported $100-million-plus cost -- along with "Chicago," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "The Quiet American," "Frida" and "City of God."
"It gets brutal," Miramax Chief Operating Officer Rick Sands said of the crunch. "It puts more pressure on distributors and exhibitors to get films booked properly, and on the publicity side it's more difficult to make noise."
Miramax was so picture-heavy this month that it bumped the planned release of "View From the Top," a romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow, to March 21 from Jan. 24.
Even while widening the release of its Oscar contender "Adaptation," Sony is scampering to support its holiday comedy hit "Maid in Manhattan," which is still going strong. The past weekend, moreover, the studio opened a new movie, the Martin Lawrence action comedy "National Security," which took in about $15.7 million in more than 2,500 theaters.
"It's two separate games and we, like many studios, are playing both games," said Jeff Blake, Sony's head of worldwide marketing and distribution. Blake also will be busy pushing the horror thriller "Darkness Falls" when it opens Friday.
A major problem for new entries has been heavy holdover business for holiday hits such as New Line's "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Catch Me If You Can" from DreamWorks SKG. Thus, Fox Searchlight moved slower than planned in widening the release of its "Antwone Fisher," which debuted in New York on Dec. 19.
"We wanted the heat to come off the Christmas movies," Peter Rice, chief of the News Corp. unit, said of the delay.
The film industry's great hope is that audience demand will prove elastic, growing with the bumper crop of awards-hungry flicks. So far, however, total box-office receipts for the first three weekends of January were about $302.8 million, up only 1.2% from $299.3 million for the comparable weekends last year, despite the larger number of films.
If the audience doesn't swell further, it's a safe bet that hyper-competitive studios will spend only more marketing dollars in the struggle to boost their proudest work.
"The cream will always rise to the top," insisted Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane.