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Many a feature will be stirring

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.

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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 in Philadelphia 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.

As in: "Hurry up and open your presents, kids. I want to leave soon so we can get good seats for Bedtime Stories."

"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.

Ho, ho, ho! And pass the popcorn.

"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. (Some years, the week after Christmas has been tops.) Last year, films took in $361.4 million Dec. 21-27.

(This year there's stiff competition: In July, The Dark Knight alone took in a record $238.6 million in its opening week.)

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. "It's an opportunity to squeeze money out of them in big numbers."

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

"If you're someone who goes to one movie a month," Poland says, "this week you may see three just because you're trying to fill your time between bowl games and parties."

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

If you're a theater operator, every day between now and Jan. 4 is Christmas (with the exception of Dec. 24, traditionally a slow day).

"We usually see capacity crowds that are atypical of weekdays, the type of crowds that the rest of the year we only see on weekends," AMC's Larson says.

The saturation of Christmas releases makes sense for the studios, even with the increased competition it creates, because at this time of year films have a longer shelf life.

"There's a different mentality than on a normal weekend when everything is riding on those first few days," Reel Source's Hartigan says. "A lot of films can open with $15 million in December and go on to make $150 million."

You can grab some serious change just hanging around.

"It's one of the few times of the year when people go to the movies without necessarily knowing what they will see," Hartigan says. "They pick when they get there."

Also, a number of prestige films are typically jammed into these last few weeks to qualify for Oscar consideration.

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."

Of course, everyone with a reindeer in this race is expecting to have a very merry Christmas.

Handicapping Christmas Openings

Chad Hartigan of Reel Source runs down the commercial prospects of the seven films opening in Philadelphia 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."