Commentary: Winning streak at May boxoffice more terminated and X'ed out than anything

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The good news, as far as Hollywood is concerned, is that audiences are flocking to summer movies, which this year began rolling out, according to the movie industry's overeager calendar reckoning, on May 1.

Overall, thanks to such springtime hits as "Monsters vs. Aliens," "Fast & Furious," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Taken," 2009's domestic boxoffice is ahead of the previous year's by 7% to date; the summer boxoffice, probably thanks to all those premium 3-D ticket prices, is up 2% compared with 2008.

The bad news is that the summer hits aren't quite as heady as last year's, and they pale in comparison to threequel-heavy May 2007.

Ah, remember 2007? Hollywood offered up a trifecta of gold-plated franchises. Sure, there were those in the exhibition community who worried that three big movies coming out during the same month would cannibalize one another --arguably, that front-loaded summer might have left a few dollars on the table -- but the returns were impressive.

Sony's "Spider-Man 3" kicked off the season with a record $151.1 million opening and through its first four weekends hauled in $307.8 million. DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" elbowed its way onto the scene, taking in $217.3 million by the end of its second weekend. Squeezing into the month's final frame, Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" bowed with $139.8 million.

Last year's May slate didn't set off quite as many fireworks, but it still triggered applause. Paramount fielded Marvel's "Iron Man" in the kickoff slot, and it won over critics and fans and grossed $258.3 million during its first four weekends. Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," marking the return of the legendary adventurer after an 18-year screen absence, rode to the rescue with a $126.9 million opening weekend during the month's final frame. Like "Iron Man," it would become a $300 million-plus grosser.

In between, Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" turned up $97.9 million through its first two weekends, though it faded relatively quickly.

This year, though moviegoers' appetites seem just as keen, May won't have any $300 million grossers to brag about. Paramount's reboot of its long-running "Star Trek" franchise is leading the parade, already in $200 million-plus territory. Also moving in that direction is Disney/Pixar's buoyantly animated "Up," which opened May 29 as this year's calendar made room for five May weekends rather than four.

But the year's other May hopefuls are falling short. Were there too many big-ticket items? Are moviegoers sampling but not committing to any one movie? Has the rocky economy created a ceiling that's hard to crack?

The answers, simple as it seems, lie in the films, which, with a couple of exceptions -- including "Trek" and "Up" -- haven't set off boxoffice stampedes.

Although the three previous installments in Fox's "X-Men" franchise built audiences steadily from 2000-06, the series wasn't exactly crying out for a makeover a la Christopher Nolan's revival of Warner Bros.' "Batman." So Gavin Hood's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" settled for an origins story, which to many probably felt like backtracking. That was reflected in the movie's opening-weekend take of $85.1 million, which approximated the

$85.6 million opening of 2003's "X2: X-Men United"; the new film isn't on track to hit "X2's" domestic gross of $215 million.

Although Ron Howard and Tom Hanks reteamed for Sony's "Angels & Demons," no one expected it to explode like 2006's "The Da Vinci Code." That film, after all, was based on a huge best-seller, while "Angels" took another of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon novels, which actually predated "Da Vinci," and pressed it into service as a sequel of sorts. That didn't fly in the U.S., though the film has done much better abroad.

Similarly, the attempt to extend the "Terminator" franchise faltered. McG's "Terminator Salvation," released by Warners, bowed to $42.6 million, a few million less than 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

Two years ago, the May record made it look as if blockbuster sequels were foolproof. But this year's not-so-merry month illustrates the flip side of that equation: Sequels, for sequels' sake, can generate business, but they also can disappear from the scene just as quickly.
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