Summer film schedule changes - again:

HOLLYWOOD - . . . When we last left our intrepid studio executives about six weeks ago, they had nearly completed their plans for this summer's movie release schedules. The operative word here is "nearly."Since then, there has been a lot of wiggling and jiggling. Schedules have been fine-tuned, with hopes of selling the most tickets by avoiding competition, attracting the most publicity and, of course, keeping one's rivals guessing.

Playing hide-and-seek with the release dates of summer movies is nothing new in the industry. But everyone is buzzing about how this year's date changes are unusually dizzying. For instance, John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. - on whom many of the studios, media and theater owners depend to put together an accurate schedule - is using up paper at an alarming rate as his staff tries to keep up with the changes. Krier laments, "It's outdated as soon as it's back from the printers. We've even had to junk some schedules altogether."

One of the biggest question marks remains the Julia Roberts melodrama, "Dying Young," which some insiders, including Premiere magazine, have dubbed the film of the summer. As two weeks ago, 20th Century Fox still was not sure whether the movie would come out as scheduled in early June, or much later - possibly autumn, when the thinking is that more people want to see serious films. There is even talk of a title change.

In contrast, some movies are being shifted to earlier dates, like Tri-Star Pictures' "Hudson Hawk" (Bruce Willis) and Paramount Pictures' "Soapdish" (Sally Field). That's a sharp contrast to last summer's situation when the suits were tearing their hair out because expensive movies like "Days of Thunder" and "Die Hard 2" weren't ready in time for summer's start.

Other films, like Columbia's "City Slickers" (Billy Crystal), have been moved three times - from June 21, then June 12 and now June 7 - in order to avoid opening against competition that is perceived as strong, and to take advantage of a solo opening weekend, when attention can be focused on it alone.

Another example is Universal Pictures' "Mobsters" (Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey). Sources say that after screening it twice, studio executives were so excited with the organized-crime period drama that they wanted to move it up to June 28 from July 19. But that would mean going head-to-head with Paramount's much-ballyhooed "Naked Gun 21/2" opening at the end of June. So it stayed on July 19.

"It's like they're seeking some elusive equation where no two comedies, big-budget pictures, adult or kids films open on the same weekend," said one executive at a theater chain, who, like others in the industry, are anxious to see the final release dates of the summer's more than 55 films.

Of the total, only four films have been the 800-pound gorillas of the summer schedule - they've been scheduled for a while and have stayed put:

- Universal's "Backdraft" (Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro), May 24.

- Warner Bros.' "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (Kevin Costner), June 14.

- Disney Studios' comic-based adventure, "The Rocketeer," June 21.

- Tri-Star's Arnold Schwarzenegger entry, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," July 3.

Whatever the final schedule, the summer's traditional opening on Memorial Day weekend promises to be competitive. Friday, May 24, will see head-to-head competition between "Backdraft," "Hudson Hawk," Fox's "Only the Lonely" (John Candy) and MGM-Pathe's "Thelma & Louise" (Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis).

Meanwhile, the Hollywood shuffle continues. Twentieth Century Fox last week pushed the release date of "Only the Lonely" up a week to May 24. One insider says Fox doesn't want it to get caught in a "post-Memorial weekend letdown."

Disney pushed forward its Bill Murray-Richard Dreyfuss comedy "What About Bob?" from May 24 to May 17. Sources say the studio saw how well Universal's "Bird on a Wire" did last year by getting a jump on the Memorial Day rush, and decided to try it.

On the other hand, there's Disney's production of E.L. Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate" (Dustin Hoffman), which was scheduled to open June 28. Last week, the studio abruptly de-scheduled the film.

Paramount's "Regarding Henry" (Harrison Ford) was originally set for release June 5, and then June 21, and it's now coming out July 12 - which just happens to be the same weekend that Paramount's sleeper blockbuster "Ghost" was released last year. Paramount executives are hoping lightning strikes twice.

So far, no major studio is releasing a movie against "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" - apparently out of fear of the title's name recognition and the film's popular, Oscar-winning star. "That's what we hear," chortled Robert G. Friedman, Warners' president of theatrical advertising and publicity, "and we're happy to accept it." - DAVID J. FOX and NIKKI FINKE

- `Home Alone' star has leverage:

HOLLYWOOD - Producer-screenwriter John Hughes promised theater owners that there would be a sequel to the phenomenal hit "Home Alone" in a speech last winter. "That is, if we can meet the kid's price," he added.

The exhibitors cheered - and why not? "Home Alone" was on its way to becoming the third-highest-grossing American film ever.

Now Hughes and distributor 20th Century Fox have met the kid's price.

The kid is 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin and his price to repeat his role as the frenetic Kevin, inadvertently left home alone by his family, was reportedly $4.5 million, plus 5 percent of the gross. No one is confirming or denying the report that showed up in the New York Daily News last week.

A Fox spokeswoman would only say last week that a deal had been signed, "but not exactly for those terms."

If true - or even close - the amount is likely the largest ever paid to a child actor.

But then, what other child stars have ever headed the cast of a more successful picture? "Home Alone," released last November, has sold $267.5 million worth of tickets in the United States as of last week, plus another $140 million worth overseas. For his role in the original film, Culkin was paid a reported $250,000.

Culkin's agent at International Creative Management, Paul Feldsher, was mum on any details. He says shooting is expected to begin after August, but no later than Oct. 1. "He's thrilled to work with Hughes and (director Chris) Columbus again," Feldsher says.

Culkin himself isn't talking about the deal. He was too busy hanging out with his brother, Kieran Culkin, 8, who is in the cast of Touchstone Pictures' "Father of the Bride" (starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton), shooting in Los Angeles.

Macaulay Culkin just finished making "My Girl" in Florida and will probably take several months off, except for a promotional tour to Japan to open "Home Alone," Feldsher says.

Hey, with an income like that . . . why not? - DAVID J. FOX

- We're glad he didn't take it personally:

HOLLYWOOD - By now, everyone in Hollywood knows what happened to Julia Phillips, the Oscar-winning producer who crashed and burned on drugs only to resurrect herself with the biting kiss-and-tell book "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again." But what of her ex-husband, Michael Phillips, with whom she produced a string of hits in the 1970s - "The Sting" (also with Tony Bill), "Taxi Driver" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"?

Michael Phillips, who has been noticeably absent from film credits since he made "The Flamingo Kid" in 1984, is having his own renaissance. While his ex-wife climbs the ladder of best-sellerdom, Phillips is releasing three major-studio movies over the next six months. "I do feel this is a new chapter in my life," he says.

Compared to some of her other victims, Michael Phillips comes off relatively unscathed in his ex-wife's book, though she frequently implies that he had very little to do with the success of their movies. And that, among other aspects of the book, rankles him.