Holiday fare: the big guns

Special to The Times

MOVIE THEATERS CURRENTLY DON'T SELL FOIE GRAS at the concession stand -- not even the ArcLight! -- but it's the only food metaphor for the holiday season to complement the common summer image of "popcorn" flicks.

That's not to say the wintry gust of movies that started this past week and ends with a last Oscar-qualifying ta-da on New Year's Eve is solely the province of weighty dramas and more sophisticated fare. After all, Will Ferrell is on screens in tights ("Elf"), Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear will soon appear as conjoined twins ("Stuck on You") and Charlize Theron caps things off as a serial killer ("Monster"). Wait, the last one actually is serious.

The November-December time frame is a compressed one for the movie industry, brief enough that the studios' big-gun releases typically share opening weekends, as opposed to the mutually respectful (read: terrified) summer practice of letting one studio behemoth dominate the box office each weekend. (It's a bit less of a crunch this year because some of the big players from the past like Miramax are releasing fewer films trying to avoid the traditional holiday glut.)

Explosive hits are definitely on Hollywood's mind throughout the season, be they thoughtful or fluffy, or more accurately -- as the showdowns seem to be shaping up -- be they magisterial war epics or grand-scale family films. But major studios and minor houses are also, of course, putting Academy Award glory at the top of their wish list: The last two best picture winners, "Chicago" (2002) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) were December releases. Columbia, therefore, sees a heartwarming, storybook-like tale such as Tim Burton's dying-daddy drama "Big Fish" as the ideal mixture of prestige and entertainment.

"It's about movies with universal themes," says Amy Pascal, chairman of Columbia Pictures. "I know people say, 'Oh, we put out our fancy movies for the Oscars,' but I think the reason we put out these movies is that it's when people are thinking about this stuff, thinking about what matters. They're in groups, and open to experience."

But campaigners are dealing with a tighter voting window thanks to new academy rules, with ballots due Jan. 17 as opposed to mid-February and the awards handed out Feb. 29. "The real impact is that platform movies are going to go wider sooner," says Miramax Chief Operating Officer Rick Sands, referring to the films that open in only a few theaters and add screens over time.

Opening a downbeat film on a few screens starting from the last week in December isn't as enticing an option anymore, the way it worked for Oscar winners such as "Monster's Ball" and "The Pianist." This year Focus Features, which released last year's "The Pianist," is giving its Sean Penn/Naomi Watts/Benicio Del Toro grief drama "21 Grams" the same measured rollout but with a head-start send-off on Nov. 21.

"With a film like this, you have to allow it to find its space," says Focus Co-president David Linde, adding that audiences are conditioned to expect a higher class of filmmaking -- whatever the subject -- in the final months of the year. "It's about introducing [a film] to your audience in a gradual and empathetic way."

SCREENER TOWN

The holidays have long been a hallowed time for reflection, and in Hollywood, that usually means reflecting on who's worthy of an award. For a while it seemed the Motion Picture Assn. of America ban on screeners was igniting a war not unlike the one in "The Matrix Revolutions" between free minds and hearts in Zion (the indies) and cold, tyrannical machines (the studios).

Diligent academy members might have been reduced to time-saving mall rats, squeezing in their Christmas shopping between the 11:40 a.m. multiplex showing of Jim Sheridan's immigrant drama "In America" and the 4:55 p.m. showing of Peter Weir's nautical adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." The recent reprieve allows academy members to receive screeners, saving them from that doom, but the shunning of other awards groups could still hurt the chances of independent films.

Lions Gate Films President Tom Ortenberg says he looks at the screener issue for his Oscar hopeful "Girl With a Pearl Earring" this way: "The potential for financial loss based on pirated copies of 'Girl With A Pearl Earring' is not great. The potential for financial gain from awards consideration, though, is enormous. It's probably reversed for 'Lord of the Rings.' "

With campaigning reaching a fever pitch last year, the academy is enforcing more stringent rules from now on. Since Warner Bros.' "The Last Samurai" deals with such warrior tenets as integrity, authenticity, loyalty and honor, could director Ed Zwick's 19th century epic have an unintended resonance this Oscar season? Jokes Zwick, "I think we should send a copy of the Bushido code to all the heads of marketing at the majors and minors."

Standout performances that could yield a gold statuette become the topic of discussion, naturally. Will Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give" serve to remind voters that she's one of our acting treasures? Will "Rings" actor Viggo Mortensen play the king come Oscar time? Will Naomi Watts' "Mulholland Drive" shutout help push her toward recognition for "21 Grams"? Will Jude Law's "Cold Mountain" trek peak with A-list stardom and a prize?

There are also the questions that hinge on financial health and careers. Will Disney be able to close out a banner box-office year ("Bringing Down the House," "Finding Nemo," "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," "Freaky Friday") on a similarly high note with "Haunted Mansion" and "Calendar Girls"? (Another of their contenders, "The Alamo," got pulled from the race for major retooling.) Can the female-centric films "The Missing" and "Mona Lisa Smile" keep the Columbia/Revolution marriage intact after summer bombs "Gigli" and "Hollywood Homicide"? And for audiences to enjoy Ben Affleck as a guy who's had his memory erased in the high-tech thriller "Paycheck," will collective amnesia of the actor's bruised public profile be required?

TIMELY THEMES

War is front and center on the minds of many films this season, with an unusual number of expensive period films that explore violent conflict in history: "Master and Commander" (the Napoleonic Wars between England and France), "The Last Samurai" (19th century Japanese civil strife) and Miramax's adaptation of the Civil War novel "Cold Mountain." And while "The Lord of the Rings" is fantastical, Peter Jackson's hotly anticipated trilogy wrap-up will probably feature the largest battle scenes of all.

"Cold Mountain" screenwriter-director Anthony Minghella, who won an Academy Award for directing the World War II-themed "The English Patient" (1996), sees an obligation in having his new movie speak to the general discourse on war these days. "It does what I think historical films must do, which is not only give us insight into a period which is lost to us, but also tries to reverberate into the world we're currently living in," Minghella says.

"Cold Mountain" juxtaposes Jude Law as a wounded, wandering soldier with Nicole Kidman as the struggling farmwoman waiting for his return. "It's not a museum piece, because of course, it's one of the dispiriting aspects of civilization that we don't learn from conflict," says the director, who promises a film in which "moments of enormous tenderness are constantly annihilated by the presence of war, the impact of war across every home in the nation."

"The Last Samurai" is set in the aftermath of Japan's forced entry into world trade at the hand of U.S. forces, a place where Tom Cruise's Civil War vet becomes drawn to Eastern ways of thinking and fighting. Says Zwick, "I think some willingness to look at what history has to offer about these places to which we've had a radically innocent view is interesting at this moment when we're doing the same thing in the Middle East."

There's even a timely high-profile documentary on the subject, Errol Morris' "The Fog of War," a profile of controversial former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, is keen on the movie's Oscar chances and even its commercial prospects, after the success this year of nonfiction films "Winged Migration," "Spellbound" and "Capturing the Friedmans."

"It's like a history lesson beyond the textbook," Sony Classics Co-president Michael Barker says about "Fog of War," adding that festival audiences have been gasping or applauding at McNamara's statements in the film -- made before the Iraq conflict -- that the U.S. should never go to war unilaterally without the aid of major allies.

A marquee of seriousness wouldn't be as effective for audiences, though, if there weren't breathers in between -- from the temporal-travel escapism of a "Timeline" to the unabashed romance of a "Love, Actually." But it's ambitious family films that once again play a dominant role this Christmas, and after the success of movies such as "Shrek" and "Finding Nemo," the consensus is that a bar has been raised. Producer Brian Grazer, who follows his mega-hit "Grinch" adaptation of 2000 with another comedian in a Dr. Seuss property -- Mike Myers as "The Cat in the Hat" -- says corralling the attention of all ages is paramount. "That's why I wanted Mike, in that he's got the artistic skill to pull it off for young kids and families, and he has an irreverence that teenagers will think is cool."

Like the storied Seuss name, most of the big family films trade on a familiar brand. There's "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," a mix of humans and cartoons from Warner Bros.' famed canon; "Cheaper by the Dozen," a loose updating of the original house-full-of-kids story; "The Haunted Mansion," Disney's latest attempt to capitalize on a theme park ride; the prequel "Young Black Stallion"; and, even though it's a story/play celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2004, a $100-million "Peter Pan" that marks the first time the youth has been played in a live-action American movie by a boy instead of a girl with a pixie haircut.

"Peter Pan" producer Lucy Fisher feels like she has the perfect holiday film for families. "One of the great things about the original piece is that it's a great adventure story, it's an action story, it's a fantasy story, it's a love story, it has something for everybody," says Fisher, who has spent 20 years trying to get a film of J.M. Barrie's tale made. Her enthusiasm reflects the hopes of the whole industry at yuletide. "Every time I look at it I think it looks like a big Christmas present!"

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One-third less filling

Though the overall number of holiday movies is about the same as last year, releases by the Big 10 (the nine major studios plus Miramax) are down 35% (24 films compared with 37 in 2002). The breakdown:

*--* Studio 2002 2003 Buena Vista 4 3 DreamWorks 1 1 MGM/UA 4 0 Miramax/Dimension 9 3 New Line 3 1 Paramount 5 3 Sony 4 4 Fox 2 3 Universal 2 3 Warner Bros. 3 3

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