Two Leonardo DiCaprio movies are headed for a Christmas-day showdown. Could this be a titanic mistake?

Santa Claus made a list of must-see Christmas movies. Then he checked it twice and wondered: Why is Leonardo DiCaprio coming to town, bearing two expensive gifts? Martin Scorsese’s $100 million-plus Gangs of New York and Steven Spielberg’s $75 million-plus Catch Me if You Can are marked ”to be opened on Dec. 25.” And that makes DiCaprio, 27, the first A-list actor ever to compete against himself in two high-profile films bowing the same weekend. ”I don’t think anybody has ever been in a situation close to this,” says his spokesman, Ken Sunshine.

At press time, neither Miramax nor DreamWorks had announced plans to spread out the holiday cheer, though it’s possible one side will blink. Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik notes, ”We’re working hard to remedy the situation and accommodate DreamWorks.”

Even if one studio steps off so that Leo’s films are merely stacked back-to-back, the showdown offers more drama than Christmas with Angelina Jolie and Jon Voight. It pits not only Leo against Leo but also Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar juggernaut Miramax against Spielberg’s DreamWorks. There’s no love lost between the two — especially after the 1999 Academy 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. ”The interesting thing is there’s nothing wrong with moving,” says one competing studio exec. ”But they don’t want to move because ‘My dad is bigger than your dad!”’

The double dose of Leo certainly complicates the marketing strategy for both sides. ”The concern is: Does promoting both movies on the same day confuse anyone?” says DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp. ”I don’t think it will, but we obviously would have preferred not to have that possible confusion.” Counters Hiltzik: ”This is one of the great times of year to release films. There’s plenty of opportunity for these and other quality projects to succeed.”

In terms of claiming the box office crown for the first weekend, the edge may belong to Catch Me, a PG-13 caper starring DiCaprio as a high school 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. Despite the Scorsese pedigree, Gangs’ commercial prospects may be limited by its R rating and two-hour, 40-minute length. ”The season certainly lends itself toward 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 Gangs ”has real appeal for young adults.”)

Pity the marketing machines that have to promote these separate but equally press-hungry flicks. ”It’s going to be very acrimonious,” says a rival studio PR head. ”Even if the star and his personal publicist are supportive of both projects, Today or [Jay] Leno or [David] Letterman will only show one clip. One movie is going to get the shaft.” Adds editor Gitesh Pandya, ”The only way to do it is for DreamWorks and Miramax to come together. And these are studios, especially at that time of year, known to not really be on speaking terms.”

Catch Me if You Can
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  • Jack O'Brien