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ROBERTS BEING SENT TO FIGHT `MENACE'.

Byline: Dave McNary Daily News Staff Writer

Universal Studios announced Monday it will counter-program against the Force, slotting its key Julia Roberts comedy nine days after the May 19 opening of ``Star Wars Episode 1: Phantom Menace.''

Universal had originally planned to open teen-ensemble comedy ``American Pie'' on May 28 and Roberts' ``Notting Hill'' on June 18, but decided to move ``American Pie'' back to July 9 and ``Notting Hill'' forward by three weeks.

The move shows the studio has considerable confidence in Roberts' box office power. Studios have generally been keeping their top-tier product away from the ``Star Wars'' prequel due to the expectation that it will completely dominate moviegoing for several weeks.

``Notting Hill,'' which also stars Hugh Grant, was acquired by Universal last year as part of its $10 billion buyout of PolyGram NV. The film, in which Roberts' movie star character becomes involved with a bookstore owner played by Grant, has reportedly posted high test scores in preview screenings.

The move will also distance ``Notting Hill'' from Paramount's ``Runaway Bride,'' another romantic comedy starring Roberts due out July 30.

Universal Pictures Chairman Ron Meyer said in a statement, ``We believe that the romantic star power of Julia Roberts with Hugh Grant will make `Notting Hill' a very strong destination for the adult moviegoing audience, most especially with females.''

Studios are generally leaving the field open for ``Phantom Menace,'' however. Two films with solid potential - Paramount's ``The General's Daughter'' with John Travolta and New Line's ``Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me'' - have been slotted for June 11.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 6, 1999
Words:267
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