Christmas weekend might be record-breaking

Unless the Grinch scares people away from their local cinemas, a new record could be set at the box office Christmas weekend as a half-dozen newly released dramas boasting Academy Award-winning casts will compete with several children’s films and other holdovers from previous weeks.

In each of the past three years, a new box-office record was set on Christmas weekend, and with the release of films such as Warner Bros.’ “Any Given Sunday” starring Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid and Cameron Diaz, Paramount’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Jude Law, and Universal’s “Man on the Moon” with Jim Carrey, industry experts believe movie grosses for Friday through Sunday could surpass $150 million – breaking the Christmas weekend record of $147.5 million set last year, when films such as “Patch Adams,” You’ve Got Mail” and “Stepmom” were hot items.

It would not be the first record set this year. Already, the 1999 total box office gross at U.S. cinemas has exceeded that of 1998 and surpassed the $7 billion mark for the first time ever. Experts also expect that, by year’s end, as many as 20 movies will have grossed $100 million, setting another new record (the current record is 18, set last year).

“We’re in a record year, and we’ve had terrific weekends this year. So, there’s no reason why this weekend couldn’t beat the Christmas record,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box office tracking firm.

The high-profile movies released this week are expected to lure audiences, even though Christmas Eve is on a Friday and Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, Dergarabedian added.

“Last year, Christmas was on a Friday. That probably hurt the Friday-night moviegoing a lot, but we still managed to set a record,” he said.

Even before the weekend, four major releases have already hit the theaters. On Tuesday, Sony released the unrated drama “Girl, Interrupted,” starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie as patients in a mental hospital for women. On Wednesday, Warner Bros. released “Any Given Sunday,” director Oliver Stone‘s epic drama about the cultural mythology of professional football, and Universal released two films, director Milos Forman‘s “Man on the Moon,” the life story of comedian Andy Kaufman, and “Snow Falling on Cedars,” a period thriller from director Scott Hicks that stars Ethan Hawke.

On Christmas Day, four new films will be added to the box office mix. DreamWorks will release “Galaxy Quest,” a sort of “Star Trek” spoof meets “Three Amigos,” in which the cast members of a fictional sci-fi TV show (played by Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell and Enrico Colantoni) get caught up in a real-life galactic war among extraterrestrials. Paramount will release two films: “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” directed by Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient“) and starring Damon as a young musician who murders a wealthy friend and then assumes his identity, and “Angela’s Ashes,” adapted from Frank McCourt’s best-selling memoir about growing up in Ireland and directed by Alan Parker.

Several films released in previous weeks will also likely show up in this weekend’s Top 10 at the box office, such as Sony’s children’s film “Stuart Little,” chronicling the adventures of a talking mouse, which was last weekend’s No. 1 film, grossing $15.4 million. Other films likely to continue performing well include Warner Bros. “The Green Mile,” starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, which was No. 2 last weekend with $12.6 million, Disney’s “Toy Story 2,” which was third with $12.1 million, and Fox’s “Anna and the King,” starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, which was fifth last weekend with $5.1 million.

But industry insiders believe that some films that performed more poorly than expected last weekend, such as Disney’s “Bicentennial Man,” might be pushed out of the Top 10 by the crush of new pictures entering the mix. And other films that have been hanging around for several weeks — such as “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” “The World Is Not Enough,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “End of Days,” and “The Bone Collector,” which placed fourth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th at the box office last weekend — are likely candidates for elimination.

“There are a lot of question marks,” one distributor said Wednesday. “It will be interesting to see what happens with ‘Bicentennial Man‘ and ‘Anna and the King.’ Both of those pictures have big stars, but they opened last weekend far weaker than anyone had expected. ‘Bicentennial Man‘ didn’t even crack $10 million. If they don’t bounce back this weekend, they could be gone in a hurry.”

Another question mark this weekend is whether “Man on the Moon” will fly or flop. Although Carrey proved he could successfully transition from silly-but-successful comedies such as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Dumb and Dumber” to a drama such as 1998’s”The Truman Show” (which made $31.5 million in its opening weekend and grossed $125.6 million overall), “Man on the Moon” challenges its audience to warm up to Andy Kaufman, a comedian who was only marginally famous and was widely disliked by many in his profession. Although the film and Carrey‘s performance have received critical praise, it could disappoint fans of Carrey‘s old slapstick-style comedy and generate bad word-of-mouth.

“‘The Truman Show‘ proved that audiences will accept Jim Carrey in a serious film, but we’ll have to see if they’ll accept him as Andy Kaufman,” Dergarabedian said. “This could be the No. 1 movie [this weekend], but it could just as easily be ‘Any Given Sunday‘ or ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley‘ as well. It’s a crowded field.”