In Leo vs. Leo showdown, Miramax blinks. The studio will move DiCaprio's ''Gangs of New York'' to early December, away from its Christmas opening opposite the actor's DreamWorks film, ''Catch Me if You Can''
Leonardo DiCaprio
Credit: Leonard DiCaprio Illustration by John Cuneo

Take that, Mr. Grinch! Leonardo DiCaprio narrowly escaped a potentially costly showdown with himself this Christmas. On Oct. 10, Miramax ended a months-long game of chicken by moving Martin Scorsese’s $100 million-plus ”Gangs of New York” off of its planned Dec. 25 release date opposite Steven Spielberg’s $75 million-plus ”Catch Me If You Can.”

The move comes just two days after Entertainment Weekly went to press with a story on the downsides of a potential head-to-head pitting not only Leo against Leo but also Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar juggernaut Miramax against Spielberg’s DreamWorks. ”We were working hard to remedy the situation and we did,” says Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik of ”Gangs”’ move to a still-unspecified date in mid-December. ”Any time you can limit hype, you can limit the distraction and return to the focus of the film, which is a good thing.”

While Miramax has not yet announced a new date, a switch even this far in advance still poses challenges. ”Even if you open a week or two apart…there’s limited choices of what you can do,” says a rival studio president. ”You still end up competing for the holiday movie-going pie, the biggest piece of which comes between Christmas and New Year’s weekend.”

Moreover, most December weekends have been gobbled up: ”Analyze That” opens Dec. 6, ”Star Trek: Nemesis” on Dec. 13, ”The Two Towers” on Dec. 18, and Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, ”Antwone Fisher,” on Dec. 20. (Miramax still has three other movies slated to open around Christmas: ”Chicago” with Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones, George Clooney’s directorial debut ”Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and Roberto Benigni’s ”Pinocchio.”)

Bumping ”Gangs” any earlier may be impossible since Scorsese, a notorious tinkerer, is still finishing the film. While the studio denies reports of recent reshoots to plump up the DiCaprio-Diaz love scenes, Scorsese did scrap Oscar winner Elmer Bernstein’s score for new music by Howard Shore that won’t be completed until November. This despite the fact that production began in August 2000 (for an intended release last Christmas) and Scorsese told Entertainment Weekly last May that he’d have ”Gangs” ”ready in July.”

In moving off of a Christmas launch, Miramax appeared to be swayed by concerns that the R-rated, two-hour, 40-minute ”Gangs” would be beaten in direct competition with ”Catch Me,” a PG-13 caper starring DiCaprio as a young con-artist and Tom Hanks as the federal agent on his trail. (In ”Gangs,” meanwhile, DiCaprio stars with Daniel Day Lewis and Cameron Diaz in a drama about warring immigrants in 19th-century Manhattan.) ”The season certainly lends itself towards the lighter fare,” says an unaffiliated studio prez. ”And it’s hard to argue with Tom Hanks.” While noting that Miramax won’t target filmgoers under 17, Hiltzik insists, ”This film has real appeal for young adults.”

Although two Leo films won’t open on the same day, they will still be competing for filmgoers’ attention at the same time. The more spaced the releases are, of course, the less likely either will get short shrift. For his part, DiCaprio spokesman Ken Sunshine dismisses as ”complete garbage” speculation that the actor will do more to tout one film over the other: ”He’s going to be doing a lot to promote both movies.”

There’s no love lost between the two studios–especially after the 1999 Oscar campaign, which resulted in Miramax’s ”Shakespeare in Love” snagging Best Picture over DreamWorks’ ”Saving Private Ryan.” And never mind the friendly rivalry between perennial Oscar orphan Scorsese and two-time winner Spielberg. Few in Hollywood were shocked by all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Citing post-9/11 concerns about the film’s violence, Miramax pushed ”Gangs” from last Christmas to July 12, where it would have collided with DreamWorks’ ”Road to Perdition.” Then on April 5, Miramax announced the switch to Dec. 25.

”Neither move made a lot of sense to me,” says DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp, who staked ”Catch Me”’s Christmas claim on March 28 while the film was still in production. Last summer, DreamWorks declined an offer from Weinstein to DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg to settle the matter with a coin toss. Up until Oct. 8, Hiltzik had defended a double dose of Leo films: ”This is one of the great times of year to release films. There’s plenty of opportunity for these two movies and other quality projects to succeed.”

And there are other timing issues to consider. DiCaprio’s once-ardent fan base may have grown bored waiting for a follow-up to 2000’s ”The Beach.” According to a September poll, readers of Seventeen magazine believe Jennifer Love Hewitt and Christina Applegate have better chances of making a comeback. The fickle girls gave DiCaprio a 20 percent shot, besting only the 12 percent odds for ex-”Wonder Years” star Fred Savage. While Leomania may have peaked, ”Gangs” Leo vs. ”Catch Me” Leo will be a battle of titanic proportions — and we won’t know until after Christmas if either goes down with the ship.

(Additional reporting by Josh Young)

Catch Me if You Can
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