Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

Mark Canton was a late arrival for Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc.'s Christmas party last year. After joining the Sony Corp. studio from Warner Brothers Inc. in October, 1991, the Columbia chairman only had time to make some last-minute marketing changes to the studio's two holiday hits, My Girl and The Prince of Tides. But within weeks, Canton had already bought his Christmas gift for 1992, plunking down $40 million for director Francis Ford Coppola to update Bram Stoker's classic horror tale, Dracula, into a contemporary erotic tale of blood and romance.

Thanks to Canton's early shopping trip, Columbia is in position to win the all-important rush for box-office dollars during the lucrative Thanksgiving to New Year's period. In addition to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Canton's studio will also release A Few Good Men, director Rob Reiner's adaptation of the Broadway drama about a U.S. Marine Corps. court-martial, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.

The two Columbia flicks will fight for the box-office title against Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, the sequel to Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.'s 1990 smash. The original, which pulled in some $285 million, was the third-highest-grossing film in history. The sequel reprises roles for 12-year-old Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci.

There's more on Hollywood's holiday plate. Walt Disney Co., will follow The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with Aladdin, another animated feature. Warner Brothers will release films featuring two bankable stars, Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard and Mel Gibson in Forever Young.

As many as three of the films could end up as $100 million blockbusters this year, say industry experts, thanks as much to their star power as to the lack of competing product. With studios such as Orion Pictures Corp. and MGM/UA Communications Co. in the midst of financial problems, Hollywood this season is releasing just 17 films, down from 20 last year, says box-office analyst Exhibitor Relations Co. Still, the unusual strength of the new films, which also include Toys with Robin Williams for Fox, could boost overall ticket sales by 5% over last year's robust $1.1 billion, says John Krier, Exhibitor's president.

FULL TILT. With as much as 25% of the annual box office at stake during the six-week holiday season, the studios are scrambling to get noticed. As Columbia's Canton observes: "This is not a time to lay back." To prove it, Canton moved up his release date for A Few Good Men from Dec. 18 to Dec. 11--the same night that Fox had planned to open another Nicholson film, Hoffa. Fox backed down: Hoffa now will open on Dec. 25. "The way we look at it, if A Few Good Men is as strong as we think it'll be, we'll get a lot of publicity for our own very good Jack Nicholson film," says Fox Executive Vice-President Tom Sherak.

One film that could get lost in the crush could also be one of the year's most controversial: Malcolm X. The Spike Lee film for Warner Brothers exceeded its $28 million budget by $5 million. Lee also had to settle a lawsuit brought by photographer George Holliday, paying him an estimated $100,000 for the use of his Rodney King videotape. The film, finished with funding from Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and others, has won mixed early reviews. "The question," says Krier, "is whether it will cross over to white audiences."

If not, Malcolm X will fall into that great Hollywood category: all potential and little box office. It's a well-stocked graveyard, with more than its share of ghosts of Christmases past.

      Some flicks likely to make the holiday season's top five
                HOME ALONE                             BRAM
                2:  LOST      A FEW                     STROKER'S
      Movie     IN NEW YORK   GOOD MEN     ALADDIN      DRACULA       HOFFA
      Studio    Fox           Columbia     Disney       Columbia      Fox
      Budget    $40 million   $41 million  $28 million  $40 million   $45 million
       Date     Nov. 20       Dec. 11      Nov. 25      Nov. 13       Dec. 25
       Power    Macaulay      Tom Cruise,               Gary Oldman,  Jack Nicholson,
                Culkin        Jack Nicholson            Winona Ryder  Danny DeVito
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.