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This year's holiday movie lineup may leave audiences overstuffed

LOS ANGELES — It's the time of year to give thanks, spend time with relatives, get a head start on holiday shopping — or, if you're in the family film business, panic.

While Thanksgiving is always one of Hollywood's most crowded weekends, next week's slate is overstuffed with movies aimed at parents and children: "The Muppets," "Hugo" and "Arthur Christmas." All three of those new, wide, PG-rated releases will be competing against the second weekend of "Happy Feet Two" and "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn," the latter of which could gross as much as $150 million in its debut starting midnight Thursday. To further complicate matters, 20th Century Fox said Wednesday that it will hold sneak previews of its "We Bought a Zoo" on Nov. 26, a full month before the Matt Damon movie's theatrical release.

"It's Darwinian out there," said George Miller, the director of the "Happy Feet" sequel. Todd Lieberman, a producer of "The Muppets," added: "There's certainly a big pileup. Going into it, I'm always superstitious and nervous about what could happen. I travel with a large two-by-four so I can always knock wood."

To gain some sort of competitive advantage, the distributors of "The Muppets," "Hugo" and "Arthur Christmas" are trying to narrow their sales message to one slice of the family crowd.

Disney's live-action "Muppets" appears to have a solid lock on parents, while Sony's animated "Arthur Christmas" is making a play for kids ages 7-11. Struggling to gain traction is Paramount's "Hugo," director Martin Scorsese's ambitious adaptation of the children's bestseller "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Paramount is releasing the 3-D "Hugo" in only 1,200 locations, about a third the number of screens for "Happy Feet Two," hopeful that if Scorsese's first family film doesn't open robustly it might build word-of-mouth and play to crowded theaters through the end of the year.

Of the three Thanksgiving movies, "Hugo" is the most expensive; people familiar with the film who asked not to be identified so as not to damage business relationships said it cost around $170 million, while producer Graham King put the figure at less than $150 million. "Arthur" cost about $98 million, while "Muppets" was about half that, in the vicinity of $45 million.

Marketing students might wonder why three prominent movies aimed at the same audience would engage in this kind of demolition derby, but the answer is simple: The Thanksgiving weekend is one of the year's best periods for ticket sales, and the weekend that follows is one of the worst.

If you have a movie that plays to families, there's no better time outside of the summer to open a film than in the wake of so much turkey, stuffing and cranberry relish. And if your production has a strong Christmas theme — certainly the case with "Arthur Christmas," a comic tale of what really happens at the North Pole — you risk holiday fatigue if you open in mid-December, when many people are about to overdose on holiday cheer.

All kinds of behind-the-scenes jockeying takes place in the run-up to Thanksgiving. To give its "Puss in Boots" as much of an opportunity as possible, DreamWorks Animation moved up the film's release by a week, from Nov. 4 to Oct. 28. After a slow start, the "Shrek" spinoff has grossed $109 million to date.

Originally, Sony was to release "Hugo," a drama about an orphan who lives in a 1930s Paris train station, and penciled in a Dec. 9 release date. But King, the financier, felt strongly that the film needed to come out two weeks earlier, on Thanksgiving weekend — when Sony already had "Arthur Christmas," which it wasn't about to move. So King took the film from Sony to Paramount, which didn't have an end-of-November release.

"It's the only time when you can't separate the kids from the parents," King said. He believes the film will have equal appeal for Scorsese fans and children ages 9-15 who may have no idea who the director is. "It's not going to be the easiest movie to sell, let's be honest," King said. "People have to give it a shot — they have to be open-minded. It's got emotion, and it's funny."

Sony's 3-D "Arthur Christmas" was made by Aardman Animations, the British outfit behind the stop-motion "Wallace & Gromit" shorts and features. To goose audience interest in the film, Sony has staged several unusual promotions, including sticking a real person on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard to answer children's phone calls to Santa, and playing a video of Justin Bieber's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" before the movie to lure kids.

"There is no question there's a lot of fine competition at that time. But my sense of it is that the reviews coming out of the United Kingdom (where the film opened to strong business last week) have been stellar," said Bob Osher, president of digital production for Sony Pictures Entertainment. "It's really a high-quality, good movie, and we're really proud of it."

Osher said he hoped the film would play into the new year, following the pattern of other holiday movies such as 2004's "The Polar Express."

The makers of "The Muppets," which audience tracking surveys show should perform better than "Arthur Christmas" and "Hugo" next weekend but could be eclipsed by the second weekend of "Twilight," said they hoped moviegoers would find that the tale about the puppets and the pending destruction of their theater has a big heart. "We always aimed to tell an emotional story — and I think people might be surprised by how emotional it is," Lieberman said.

To ensure that the film didn't play like a retread of the "Muppet" movies and videos from the 1970s and 1980s, Lieberman and producer David Hoberman hired James Bobin, best known for making Sacha Baron Cohen's outlandish "Ali G" show, as the film's director. "We wanted somebody who was a little different, to keep a modern approach," Hoberman said.

Added the film's non-puppet star, Jason Segel: "A lot of time, family film means parents are going to be sitting there bored while their kids are being entertained. This, I think, is a true family film in the way that your whole family would sit and watch 'The Simpsons' because they didn't condescend to children.

"They had jokes for everybody at every age range, and I think that's part of what's amazing about the Muppets. First of all, they never say anything mean, they never make fun of anybody and they don't condescend to children. They don't dumb anything down because they think that's all kids can handle. They respect children as young adults."