March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

If you’re an actor or a director, a cinematographer or an editor, a gaffer or a grip, and you’re not working right now, bad news: It doesn’t get any better than this. With a potential writers’ strike looming on May 2 and an actors’ walkout likely at the end of June, the movie divisions of every studio in Hollywood have kicked into overdrive, greenlighting movies as fast as they can cast them (actually, faster). What this offers — besides the possibility of a lot of really bad movies hitting theaters a year from now — is a window on their high-stakes strategizing. After a year in which the battle for audience dollars was decided by a mere two tenths of a percentage point, the studios are girding for a rematch. Here’s a look at where the top 10 studios are in the box office race and at the potential blockbusters they’ll use to elbow their way to the front of the pack.

Buena Vista

2000 Rank 1 Market Share 14.7% The Story So Far In terms of cold, hard cash, 2000 was a win, though not a pretty one. Films like Gone in 60 Seconds, Unbreakable, and the high-cost Dinosaur helped the Mouse House stockpile $1.1 billion for the year, yielding a razor-thin third straight victory. The catch: Disney’s entire slate had former chief Joe Roth’s mouseprints on it, even if his participation in many films ended in early development. (Roth now runs the Sony-affiliated Revolution Studios.) And while his replacement, ex-animation czar Peter Schneider, has Michael Eisner’s respect (pushing Remember the Titans to a $115 million U.S. gross goes in his win column), his lack of experience in live action could be a deficit. But the new guy has help — veteran ‘toon honcho Thomas Schumacher and feature exec Nina Jacobson are well regarded. The Game Plan Schneider’s slate — minus Pearl Harbor, in development before he arrived — is the epitome of low-budget, no-star family fare (think Disney’s The Kid without Bruce Willis). It’s all animation and small stuff like The Princess Diaries and Bubble Boy from here on. High Hopes Disney’s summer animation tent pole, Atlantis, looks to have the scope of an Indiana Jones movie; Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. should mint money; and for all the hoopla over Pearl Harbor‘s $135 million budget, that trailer is a smash. Trouble Spots With Paramount, Universal, and Warner crowding the family market — think Rugrats, Grinch, and Harry Potter — there’s a fierce fight for those dollars. The Disney logo doesn’t guarantee a hit (witness 102 Dalmatians). Also: Low budgets often equal profits, but small profits; market share could erode in 2001. — Daniel Fierman

Universal

Rank 2 Market Share 14.5% The Story So Far Only a few years ago, this studio was struggling like a salmon in the Sahara. But thanks to a knack for picking good partners, Universal owned half of many of the last year’s biggest hits, from Meet the Parents and Gladiator (cofinanced by DreamWorks) to Erin Brockovich (Sony) and Hannibal (MGM). Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine provided Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Grinch, 2000’s top U.S. grosser ($260 million). Given all that, what’s a little disaster like Rocky and Bullwinkle? The feel-good power of cash spread internally: Even the acquisition by French company Vivendi and the resignation of chairman Stacey Snider’s No. 2, Kevin Misher, have caused surprisingly little stir. The Game Plan If it ain’t broke … In the next year, Universal will haul out no-brainer blockbusters like The Mummy Returns, American Pie 2, and Jurassic Park III, and also take some expensive gambles: The Matt Damon thriller The Bourne Identity is Swingers director Doug Liman’s first mainstream feature. High Hopes Universal’s betting on Spy Game, starring Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and Imagine’s schizophrenia drama A Beautiful Mind as prestige pics that could rake in big bucks; if all else fails, those dinosaurs are sure to take a bite out of the market. Trouble Spots The postponement of the Miramax coproduction Captain Corelli’s Mandolin from April to August isn’t a ringing endorsement. With only Billy Elliot under its belt, fledgling indie division Universal Focus still has to prove itself. And there’s always the chance for a culture clash when Snider’s boss, Vivendi Universal co-COO Pierre Lescure, arrives on our shores to oversee operations. — Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

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