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Grinch Hopes to Steal Thanksgiving

With much riding on the five-day holiday weekend, studios stuff theaters with big-budget blockbusters.

October 20, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

Thanksgiving weekend has always been a high-stakes box-office derby, and never more so than this year's runoff among pricey blockbuster hopefuls. Hundreds of millions of studio dollars are riding on a handful of movies, all aimed at the family audience.

History shows the five-day weekend is prime time for launching broad audience crowd-pleasers such as "Home Alone," "Toy Story" and "Mrs. Doubtfire." But this year, the field is so crowded that studios are worried that the audience won't expand to accommodate all their offerings.

Universal Pictures is fielding the single most expensive movie, the first big-screen version of a classic Dr. Seuss book, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," due in theaters Nov. 17.

Believing it has hatched a perennial franchise, the studio is investing more than $200 million in the making and worldwide marketing of the Imagine Entertainment movie starring Jim Carrey and directed by Ron Howard.

Rival Disney fears "Grinch" might steal its Thanksgiving--the holiday season it has dominated for six years. Not willing to give up the lucrative turf without a fight, Disney is delivering a one-two punch the day before Thanksgiving, releasing its sequel "102 Dalmatians" and "Unbreakable," a new supernatural thriller from "Sixth Sense" director M. Night Shyamalan.

Disney is betting big money on its two entries, each of which cost more than $80 million to make and tens of millions of dollars more to market. "We have released a Disney movie every Thanksgiving for more than a decade and the public has come to expect that," said Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group.

But Cook denied that putting "Unbreakable" on the same date as "102" (Nov. 22), was a move to dominate the Thanksgiving weekend and undercut "Grinch." "The stakes are too high to play those silly games. These are two completely different movies and audiences. We thought we could get the most money from the date," he said.

Universal's distribution chief, Nikki Rocco, said that while the coming holiday is "a very highly competitive corridor," she and her colleagues believe "we have the goods with 'Grinch.' "

While the 15-week summer box office (Memorial Day through Labor Day) accounts for 40% of the year's total revenues, the seven-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is the second-busiest moviegoing season, representing 16%, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co.

Last year's five-day Thanksgiving weekend set a record with a total box-office take of more than $225 million from all releases. The top film, Disney's "Toy Story 2," grossed a whopping $80 million over the five-day period, becoming the biggest Thanksgiving opener.

The next-highest grosser, MGM's James Bond movie "The World Is Not Enough," took in $34 million.

Both Disney and Universal's behemoth marketing machines are in high gear, ready to ram more merchandise and promotional tie-ins down the throats of consumers than even the most ravenous buyer can swallow.

Get ready for barking cereal spoons, color-changing dog bowls and Spotacular Vanilla and Chocolate Dalmatian Sensation ice creams for "102 Dalmatians."

Industry veteran Edward Feldman, producer of "102 Dalmatians," sent Cook a letter praising him and his Disney staff "for giving me a marketing presentation that I had never seen in my life. They are going bonkers." Feldman was executive producer of "101 Dalmatians," which grossed $136 million in the U.S. and was a very profitable franchise for Disney.

Then there are the Grinch-inspired shower radios, extreme sport skateboards and in-line skates, waffle makers and inflatable furniture, among zillions of the usual lunch boxes, bedsheets, pajamas, trading cards, Band-Aids, board games, books and action and plush toys.

"It's gift-giving time, which is why all these merchandising movies come out," "Grinch" producer Brian Grazer said. "This is the most competitive Thanksgiving time I've seen in my entire career. "Audiences are picking movies that reach them on a marketing basis. Word-of-mouth becomes much less important."

The rest of the studios are in the race as well. Paramount Pictures is throwing its marketing weight behind its $30-million sequel "Rugrats in Paris: The Movie," launching what it claims is its "largest and most ambitious" promotional campaign ever. Seductive sweepstakes prizes include everything from trips to Paris to $75,000 in cash.

Paramount has the added advantage of its sister company Nickelodeon running the "Rugrats" TV series with a constant stream of movie ads.

"It's going to be a very competitive time, but we have a huge established franchise and a built-in audience--a passionate fan base," said Paramount Pictures Vice Chairman Robert Friedman.

The first "Rugrats" movie, which cost $25 million, is one of the highest- grossing non-Disney animated films ever, taking in just over $100 million domestically when it was released during the 1998 Thanksgiving weekend. The movie generated huge merchandising profits.

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