Brad Pitt. Tom Cruise. Jennifer Aniston. Will Smith. Adam Sandler.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Hoping to cash in on an increasingly profitable time of year, Hollywood is loading up the holiday season as never before with big releases.

This year, seven major films will be released on Christmas, the most ever. Beyond the packages under your tree Thursday you’ll find “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Marley & Me,” “Valkyrie,” “Bedtime Stories,” “The Reader,” “Gran Torino” and “The Spirit.”

This may seem like odd timing – emptying the vaults on what is, for many people, the holiest day of the year – but a yuletide trip to the movies has become an American tradition.

“Traffic is very strong on Christmas Day, particularly after 3 or 4 p.m. as family things wrap up and people start coming out,” says Sun Dee Larson, spokeswoman for the AMC theater chain, which operates more than 5,000 screens in 30 states.

Last Dec. 25, the top 10 films rang up $57.4 million in ticket sales in North America. “It ranked as the 15th-biggest day of the year in terms of top-10 grosses,” says Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, which tracks movie revenue.

“Generally there are not many businesses open on Christmas Day, and moviegoing is very popular with families looking for an activity they can do together,” says Dick Westerling, spokesman for Regal Entertainment, the country’s largest exhibitor, with more than 6,800 screens in 39 states.

“It’s normal to see a glut of films” at Christmastime, says Chad Hartigan, analyst for Reel Source, a box-office-tracking Web site, “but this year is a little more packed than previous years.”

And that’s not even counting “The Day the Earth Stood Still”; “Seven Pounds,” with box-office king Will Smith; “Yes Man,” with Jim Carrey; and the animated “The Tale of Despereaux,” all released shortly before the holiday.

Everyone wants a slice of the plum pudding that is Christmas week, which has topped seven-day box-office totals every year since 2004.

Why the winter windfall?

People have a lot of time on their hands.

“Much like the summer and Thanksgiving, this is a chance to get families, with kids out of school and many people off work,” says David Poland, editor-in-chief of Movie City News, a Web site.

Movies are still a relatively affordable remedy for cabin fever, which runs rampant at this time of year.

This year promises to be particularly lucrative because Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on Thursdays, creating two four-day weekends.

The front-runner in this year’s Christmas batch is “Bedtime Stories,” a PG fantasy starring Adam Sandler. It takes on the family-friendly mantle worn in previous years by the “Harry Potter” series, the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

“People are looking for something they can take the family to,” Poland says. “Unless it’s a complete disaster, Disney will find $150 million on that film.”

Handicapping Christmas openings

Chad Hartigan of Reel Source runs down the commercial prospects of the seven films opening on Christmas.

• “Bedtime Stories”: “Without a doubt the movie to beat. In times past, films that are suitable for the whole family and have a fantasy element have done amazing business at Christmastime.”

• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”: “Getting a lot of Oscar talk and doing well with critical support. That usually translates to good numbers. It has the feel of a big movie, an epic in the ‘Forrest Gump’ vein.”

• “Marley & Me”: “A solid earner. It will make Fox money, but it won’t rewrite any record books.”

• “Valkyrie”: “Has a lot of bad buzz to overcome.”

• “The Spirit”: “Modest expectations.”

• “Gran Torino”: “Not a factor. Only on 75 screens (nationally) during Christmas. It won’t open wide until January.”

• “The Reader”: “A tough sell. Will probably find more success in the art houses than the multiplexes.”


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