September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

With time-warping skills to rival Dr. Evil’s (cue maniacal laughter here), Hollywood is setting its sights on summer 2003. Sure, studios are still tallying the 2002 summer box office grosses, but maneuvering for the perfect 2003 release date has already begun. ”It’s like a war,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, referring to the unprecedented number of big-budget, tent-pole flicks vying for moviegoing eyeballs. Here’s a sneak peek at the master plan for next summer’s beellions.

MAY MADNESS
Ever since ”Twister” opened on May 10, 1996, sweeping up $41.1 million at the box office in its first days, summer has been starting earlier. (”Spider-Man”’s spine-tingling $115 million opening weekend has further cemented the month as prime real estate.) What’s in store? The mother of all sequel showdowns: ”X-Men 2” rips into theaters May 2, and just 13 days later, on Thursday, May 15, Keanu Reeves will whoa audiences in ”The Matrix Reloaded.”

Fox, which staked out the May day last fall, believes its ”X-Men” will score the top spot for the two weeks before the ”Matrix” sequel arrives. ”That’s the explosive start of the summer,” says Fox cochairman Tom Rothman of his ”X”-pert strategy. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. hopes to make ”Matrix” ”the one” by opening the eagerly awaited Wachowski Bros. pic a week prior to summer’s first long weekend. ”If you have momentum, you can really have a huge Memorial Day,” says Dergarabedian. No other franchise films are set to open that holiday weekend; Eddie Murphy’s family flick ”Daddy Day Care” is the only contender on the calendar.

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