Studios pull out the stars for December releases

Updated: Nov 29 2004, 05:30am hrs
Animated superheroes, talking sharks and a good-natured sea sponge may have dominated at the box office for the past month, but real flesh-and-blood movie stars are taking center stage at the megaplex in December.

Jim Carrey, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Adam Sandler, Brad Pitt and Barbara Streisand are among the marquee names headlining films being released after the Thanksgiving holiday as Hollywood looks for a strong finish to what has been an erratic year.

Such November hits as The Incredibles, National Treasure and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie finally brought positive momentum to a box office that had been sluggish since Labor Day weekend. As of Sunday, ticket sales still lagged about 2 percent behind 2003s levels.

Theres usually a very strong mix of films in December including Oscar contenders, comedies and epics, and the same is true this year, said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. But it will be interesting to see if any film can take the place of Lord of the Rings.

For the past three Decembers, each chapter of The Lord of the Rings trilogy opened with huge box office grosses. And in 2001 and 2002, the first two chapters of the Harry Potter series made for record December grosses.

The Martin Scorsese-directed epic The Aviator starring DiCaprio as Howard Hughes has major buzz heading into the month. Released by Miramax Films, Aviator bows Dec. 17, more than two weeks after the debut of Oliver Stones historical epic Alexander, which opened Wednesday.

Jim Carrey, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Adam Sandler, Brad Pitt and Barbara Streisand are among the marquee names headlining films being released after the Thanksgiving holiday
With Lord of the Rings out of the way, there is space for historical epics again this year, observed Gitesh Pandya, editor of the BoxOfficeGuru.com Web site. For that reason, I think The Aviator has a good chance at the box office.

The Harry Potter crowd is being targeted by Paramount Pictures, which is releasing Lemony Snickets A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Carrey. Like the Potter series, the film is based on a popular childrens book series and should have something of a built-in audience when it hits theaters on Dec. 17.

Its a family film, and by the time it opens, a lot of the November family films will be out of the way, Pandya said. They have Jim Carrey, and its a film that skews toward kids. A good portion of the Harry Potter crowd will be interested in this film.

For adults, one of the most anticipated releases is Warner Bros. Oceans Twelve, a sequel to 2002s Oceans Eleven that grossed $183.4 million domestically. The sequel, to be released Dec. 10, reunites original cast members Clooney, Roberts, Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle with the addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Oceans Twelve should be a slam dunk in terms of passing $100 million, but those kinds of sequels can be tricky as well, said Brandon Gray, president of BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Its dependent on how much people loved the first movie. They certainly have the same star power and vibe as the first movie.

A week before Oceans bows, Roberts is one of the stars of the Sony Pictures Entertainment drama Closer, directed by Mike Nichols and also starring Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen.

Last December, Roberts headlined the drama Mona Lisa Smile, which was one of the superstars lower-grossing starring vehicles with a domestic haul of $63.9 million.

While she has been one of the few consistent female box office superstars since the 1990s, Roberts has not anchored a breakout hit since 2000s Erin Brockovich.

Its hard to measure her box office star power today because she hasnt done many films where she is anchoring solo, unlike Tom Cruise, where in his films its all him, Pandya said.

While Oceans is sure to provide some laughs, the month has several comedies on tap beginning with Sandlers Spanglish from Sony Pictures ntertainment on Dec. 17, the same day that Lemony and Aviator open.

The Christmas Day debut of 20th Century Foxs Fat Albert will have to compete against Universal Pictures Meet the Fockers, the sequel to the 2000 hit Meet the Parents, which bows Dec. 22.

Unlike a lot of sequels, here we have characters that people do want to see again, Pandya said of Fockers, which reunites Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro from the first film and adds Streisand and Dustin Hoffman to the mix.

The analysts predict that both Fockers and Albert will do well rather than cannibalize each other.

GREG HERNANDEZ / NY TIMES