Dear Santa, I Want A Blockbuster

A juicy list has the studios headed for another record year

Hollywood didn't need a huge windfall to make this a record year at the box office. But it got one in the form of Pokemon: The First Movie, a big-screen version of the trading-card/video-game/TV-show mania that has seized America's elementary school children. By Thanksgiving, 15 days after the movie opens, it will probably pass $100 million at the box office, a nifty return for Warner Bros., which paid Nintendo Co. $5 million for the rights to rework the Japanese animated film with American voices. A day after the Pokemon movie hit the cineplexes, Warner ordered up a new 800 phone number to handle requests by outraged kids and their parents who were unable to get promised Pokemon cards with their movie tickets. "I'm not even sure we realized how big this was going to be," says Brad A. Ball, Warner's president for U.S. marketing.

Pokemon is part of a yearend blitz that should push the 1999 box office to $7.4 billion, up 7% from the record $6.9 billion that exhibitors took in last year, according to projections by Paul Degarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. But the riches will not be evenly distributed: Despite earlier promises of some restraint in excessive output--to avoid stepping on one another's coattails--the major studios are releasing 24 films between Thanksgiving and New Year's, up from 17 during the same period last year, says Degarabedian. So, even with record ticket sales, some flicks are going to have a hard time grabbing sufficient audience.

Who will win? After Pokemon, the next sure thing would appear to be Walt Disney Co.'s Toy Story 2, the computer-generated sequel to the 1995 hit produced by Steven P. Jobs's Pixar Animation Studios that grossed $191.7 million. It even has one clear advantage over the Japanese phenom: Adults can enjoy it, too. Like the original, Toy Story 2 has a strong storyline and the same savvy Rocky and Bullwinkle-like humor, which should make it at least the parental choice for repeat business.

Up against the fearsome twosome of Pokemon and Toy Story 2: Columbia Pictures' Stuart Little, which stars a computer-generated mouse and live actors in the film adaptation of E.B. White's classic that millions of baby boomers read. A strong contender for the pivotal teen audience is MGM's latest James Bond installment, The World Is Not Enough. Pierce Brosnan stars in the 19th film in the 007 series.

After these four, however, the handicapping gets harder. This Christmas season's lavish period epic is Anna and the King, 20th Century Fox's remake of the 1946 movie that inspired the stage and screen musical The King and I. It stars Jodie Foster as the English governess and Hong Kong film idol Chow Yun-Fat as the king. But the buzz is mixed on whether it will attract the Jane Austen crowd as hoped.

GRIM CHEER. As usual, part of the December pileup is caused by last-minute Oscar wannabes. This year, studios are releasing an unusually large number of films by critically acclaimed directors, including Milos Forman's Man on the Moon, a biopic about comic Andy Kaufman starring Jim Carrey, and Oliver Stone's dark portrait of professional football, Any Given Sunday, starring Al Pacino. Another Oscar contender--if only because Tom Hanks is the star--is The Green Mile, based on a Stephen King novel about a benevolent prison guard working on death row.

These flicks may cheer the critics, but they could be a bit grim for holiday revelers. Still, Universal Pictures has high hopes for the even darker End of Days. After a two-year hiatus, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as an ex-cop who battles the devil. But the violence in the $105 million special-effects-laden film even made Universal execs blanch at a screening, according to insiders. That's O.K. The box-office receipts might bring back color to their cheeks by yearend.

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