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Potter delay triggers scramble for movie release dates

September 10, 2008 | 10:00 am

CtlogoIn the Harry Potter stories, wizards play chess with life-size, animated pieces.

But when Warner Bros. pushed the release of the next film in the Potter franchise, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," from Nov. 21 to summer 2009, the studio set off a chess game of another sort that’s being played out in Hollywood.

In the last few weeks, distributors have shifted several major fall releases -- including the animated 3-D comedy "Bolt," the vampire thriller "Twilight," the James Bond adventure "Quantum of Solace," and the epic romance "Australia" -- to new dates in November, hoping to take advantage of the box-office void created by Harry’s departure.

November is one of the biggest months for movie ticket sales outside the summer popcorn season, and its three biggest openings ever were all Harry Potter movies, with weekend hauls ranging from $88 million to $103 million.

The chain reaction was set off Aug. 14 when Warner stunned Potter-heads around the globe with its announcement. The move was aimed at bulking up the studio's 2009 slate -- thanks to the box office success of "The Dark Knight" this year Warner can afford a breather.Bolt

Chuck Viane, Walt Disney Studios’ president of domestic distribution, said he was having lunch with other top executives at the Burbank company when the news broke. After checking that afternoon with the studio’s computer animation department, which was wrapping up post-production on "Bolt," and theater chain bookers around the country, Disney within hours advanced the film to Nov. 21, the Friday before Thanksgiving, from Nov. 26.

"If someone is going to give you five extra days of great grosses, why not seize that opportunity," Viane said.

Summit Entertainment, meanwhile, saw a chance to expand its holiday season run for "Twilight," which the company believes could launch a lucrative, female-driven franchise based on the best-selling novels.

The next day, Aug. 15, even with "Bolt" having pounced on the Potter date, Summit moved "Twilight" up to Nov. 21, from Dec. 12. "Bolt," the story of a TV star dog who thinks he has superpowers, is aimed at family audiences while "Twilight," a live-action PG-13 fantasy about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire, has a darker tone, so the films are likely to have little overlap.

Twilight_2 "Harry Potter is a box-office force that everybody has to work around," said Rob Friedman, co-chairman and chief executive of Summit. "Once the Warner guys decided to move it into 2009, a big vacuum -- and a big opportunity -- was created."

Potter’s move freed up plenty of business not only on its opening weekend, but also over the post-Thanksgiving weekend, when it still would have been a formidable competitor.

Sony Pictures, which successfully rebooted the Bond franchise with "Casino Royale" on Nov. 17, 2006, also shook up the schedule in a bid to maximize holiday season business. The studio moved "Quantum of Solace," the second film with Daniel Craig as the tuxedoed British secret agent, to Nov. 14 from Nov. 7.Quatum_2

Sony got closer to the mid-November period that had worked so well not only two years ago but also with several previous Bond films. Sony wanted to "stick with a winning formula," noted Jeff Blake, the studio’s chairman of marketing and distribution, without getting too far away from the film’s locked-in, Oct. 31 launch date in Britain.

And two weeks ago, Twentieth Century Fox moved "Australia," one of its key fall releases, to Nov. 26 from Nov. 14. Steering clear of Bond should help the old-fashioned, adult-skewing drama from director Baz Luhrmann attract moviegoers on its opening weekend.

A Fox spokesman says the studio was motivated by the absence of a certain young wizard. The busy holiday weekend is "truly befitting this Baz Luhrmann motion picture event," he said.

But one chess game leads to another. This week, Universal Pictures moved one of its big-budget, effects-driven "tent poles," the creature spectacle "Land of the Lost," from July 17 -- the new Potter date -- up to June 5. "Lost" may include lots of dinosaurs and fictional lizardlike things called sleestaks, but the Potter franchise is next summer's 800-pound gorilla. 

-- Josh Friedman

Photos: From top, Bolt (Disney Enterprises); Twilight (Summit Entertainment); Quantum of Solice (Associated Press).