Think the hazy, crazy days are behind you? Think again. Hollywood has already planned your next summer break.

By Karen Valby
September 13, 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.

NOT SO JOLLY GREEN GIANT

Thanks to a teaser trailer hitched to Spider-Man, superhero fans know The Hulk will bound into theaters June 20. But Universal’s early call has director Ang Lee feeling pelted by gamma rays. At the recent San Diego Comic-Con conference, Lee admitted his part-Eric Bana/part-CGI masterpiece was over budget and behind schedule — pointing out the challenges of setting release dates for such behemoth projects so far in advance. ”I’m Hulking out!” he reportedly joked. Universal exec Marc Shmuger pledges the flick ”is going to make the date.”

XXX director Rob Cohen can relate to a director on a deadline. He had just nine months of production in order to hit his Aug. 9 mark. ”I knew it would be ready,” says Cohen. ”But the question was, How much sacrifice of the effects and the polishing of the movie would happen?” Apparently not much: XXX has already made $123 million.

Besides, missing a deadline isn’t a good option. ”The downside in terms of bad press that you’ll get by moving may outweigh moving,” advises Dergarabedian. Of course, there are exceptions: Titanic’s director asked Fox execs to change its release from summer to winter in 1997. ”Jim Cameron said to us, ‘I can finish the movie for July, but it will not be as good as it can be if I had time to work on it,”’ says Rothman. Adds Nielsen EDI’s Dan Marks: ”Everyone said, ‘Ooooh! Trouble with the picture!’ But that’s a great example of why you move a date.” And it helped that there were no merchandising deals for Titanic to fret over. The Hulk, however, will come with a lot more baggage in to-be- announced marketing tie-ins.

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