Shrek 2: © Dreamworks/PDI
April 25, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Talk about compulsive planning. While you’re weighing whether to walk down ”American Wedding”’s theater aisle or enter ”The Matrix Reloaded,” studios are already announcing when you’re going to see what next summer, nailing down dates for movies that in many cases haven’t even begun production yet. And in a sign that competition is fiercer than ever, studios aren’t just picking opening weekends — they’re battling over them.

”People got smart,” explains Nikki Rocco, Universal’s head of distribution. ”When summer only consists of 10 or 12 weeks, you get out there and say, ‘Hey, we’re here — find another date.”’ That’s exactly what Universal did with its Stephen Sommers-directed monsters ball, ”Van Helsing.” When Sony’s heavyweight ”Spider-Man” sequel moved from May 7 to July 2, 2004, ”Van Helsing” instantly hopped from May 21 to the day Spidey vacated. May 7 has proved lucky for Universal — that’s when the studio opened Sommers’ 1999 smash, ”The Mummy” — and by getting off May 21, ”Van Helsing” rid itself of the competition from Paramount’s ”Mission: Impossible 3” and Warner Bros.’ Brad Pitt epic ”Troy.” So who loses in that shuffle? With ”Spider-Man 2” now spinning its web around Independence Day weekend, it will entangle the Will Smith movie ”I, Robot,” which Fox might want to reprogram.

In case this is all so confusing that you’ve gotten out your calendar, here are some other tentative dates to mark down: Look for Roland Emmerich’s science-fiction extravaganza ”The Day After Tomorrow,” starring Dennis Quaid, on May 28, DreamWorks’ ”Shrek 2” on June 18, and Universal’s ”Pitch Black” sequel, ”Riddick,” on June 25 — the same weekend the studio successfully opened Vin Diesel’s ”The Fast and the Furious” two years ago. ”Fury Road,” the fourth installment in the ”Mad Max” series, was tentatively scheduled to debut a month later on July 23, the same day as Universal’s ”Thunderbirds,” but planned overseas filming has been delayed because of the war in Iraq; ”Fury” is now unlikely to begin production until this fall, leaving its opening in limbo.

Certainly studios would like to believe there’s a science to the system, but as in all things movie-related, they’d do well to leave some room for magic — a lot of room. Because one movie that hasn’t named a date yet is none other than ”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” And the consequences of that announcement could make a game of Quidditch look like child’s play.

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