Most film studios, naturally, are on the edge of their theater seats waiting for the release of their Christmas-time big guns; also waiting for those films, though perhaps not as anxiously, are the fans, who've been staying away from theaters lately during the traditional fall slowdown. The two Christmas films released ahead of the pack -- "Absence of Malice" and "Ragtime" -- are both doing satisfactorily in their limited engagements, but the only film that's dominating the current market is a left-field hit, Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits." The Monty Python-Meets-the-Wizard-of-Oz fantasy is easily outdistancing a generally sluggish field without setting any box offices on fire.

And not only is it doing well at the turnstiles, but "Time Bandits" has picked up a surprisingly generous amount of press coverage. In Los Angeles, for example, the Herald Examiner ran a front-page feature explaining why the film was making "big bucks," and the Times followed with an entertainment section piece. Neither paper routinely gives that kind of space to films making the respectable but not exceptional kind of money "Time Bandits" is; the Herald's feature came a couple of days after a top editor saw the film with a young acquaintance. Both editor and kid loved it, and in a flash the movie was on Page 1. Naturally staffers at Avco-Embassy are delighted at the hit -- as, presumably, are Norman Lear and Jerry Parencio, who in a matter of days are expected to announce their purchase of the successful small studio.