Early summer looks good with 'Indy 4,' 'Narnia 2'

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Summer season: As seasons go, nothing's more important to Hollywood's boxoffice health than the summer, but even a record setting summer doesn't ensure a memorable year.

That was, unfortunately, the lesson Hollywood learned in 2007. Before looking ahead today to see how the early summer of '08 is shaping up, it's worth taking a look back to see how last summer impacted on the year.

Paul Degarabedian's Media by Numbers, which tracks the boxoffice's weekly twists and turns, reported that last summer's boxoffice hit record heights with grosses of $4.184 billion from May 4 - Sept. 3. Summer revenues were up 3.92% vs. '06 when grosses were only $3.85 billion. It also helped that ticket prices rose about 4.6% from '06 -- $6.85 in '07 vs. $6.55 the prior year.

Thanks to strong summer ticket sales, as of Sept. 3 the boxoffice for the year to date was $6.89 billion vs. $6.414 billion for the comparable period of '06. At that point, revenues were up 7.42% and attendance was up 2.71%. Unfortunately, Hollywood had a mediocre fall season and much of the summer's gains were lost. 2007's fall revenues of $1.125 billion were down 4.74% from $1.181 billion in '06. Attendance in the fall '07 was down 8.91% from '06. By the time Christmas was over, the full year was at $9.3 billion. While that was up 3.91% from $8.95 billion a year earlier, it was down 0.2% in terms of attendance.

Nonetheless, the strong summer boxoffice went a long way towards reassuring Hollywood that the movie business is still very healthy. In the dismal summer of '05 many observers were ready to bury Hollywood, claiming that in the age of hi-def giant plasma TV screens and increasingly shorter DVD release windows Americans now preferred to see movies in the comfort of their own homes. Doing so meant not having to spend money on gas to get to theaters, hire babysitters, pay higher ticket and concession stand prices, go out for dinner afterwards and, better yet, not have to put up with rude fellow patrons talking on their cell phones during the movies.

It all sounded quite believable at the time, but happily didn't turn out to be true. What really kept people away from theaters in the summer of '05 was the mediocre product that was playing then. Better product the next summer showed that people still wanted to go to the movies if there were films playing that they wanted to see. The record-setting summer of '07 hammered that point home.

Needless to say, as we start 2008 one of the key questions is how good is this summer likely to be? As usual, there's a ton of product and as is typically the case most of it looks promising sight unseen. While no one really knows how these films will perform, looking at what's now on the schedules in terms of wide releases during the prime early summer period from May 2 through July 2 gives cause for optimism. Here's a quick rundown of what's set to open then. I'll focus on films opening from July 11 through Aug. 29 in an upcoming column.

The presummer season will kick off May 2 with Paramount and Marvel Enterprises' fantasy action adventure "Iron Man," directed by Jon Favreau ("Elf") and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. It's a superhero tale with Marvel comic book roots about a billionaire industrialist (Downey) who's kidnapped and builds a high-tech suit of armor to escape, after which that armor enables him to protect the world as Iron Man.

May 2 will also see Sony's romantic comedy "Made of Honor," directed by Paul Weiland ("City Slickers II") and starring Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan. Dempsey and Monaghan play longtime platonic friends. When Monaghan gets engaged she asks Dempsey to be her maid of honor for the wedding. He accepts, hoping he can stop the marriage and win her for himself.

May 9 is opening day for Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's action adventure "Speed Racer," directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski ("The Matrix" franchise) and starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman. Based on a 1960s Japanese animated series, the film's hero Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a natural born race car driver whose only real competition is the memory of his brother Rex Racer, who died in a crash, leaving Speed to fulfill his legacy.

The first of the summer's major franchise episodes arrives May 16 with Disney and Walden Media's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," directed by Andrew Adamson ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and with returning stars Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Anna Popplewell, Alicia Borrachero and William Moseley plus the voice of Liam Neeson. In this second episode of the family series, the four kids who once ruled Narnia are their way to boarding school when they're called upon to return to that magic land, deal with an evil king and restore the rightful heir to Narnia's throne.

The first "Narnia" episode opened Dec. 9, 2005 to $65.6 million at 3,616 theaters ($18,129 per theater) and went on to gross $291.7 million domestically, making it the year's second-biggest film.

Also opening May 16, but certainly not competing for "Narnia's" audience, is Lionsgate's horror thriller "Midnight Meat Train," directed by Ryuhei Kitamura ("LoveDeath") and starring Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones and Brooke Shields. Its story is about a New York photographer trying to track down "the subway butcher." Given Lionsgate's great track record at marketing product like this, "Midnight" could do bloody well.

Rounding out May 16's slate is 20th Century Fox's romantic comedy "What Happens in Vegas," directed by Tom Vaughan ("Starter for 10") and starring Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher and Queen Latifa. It's a story about two people who wake up married to each other in Vegas after one of them has won a huge jackpot using the other's quarter. At first each tries to get their own hands on all the money, but they wind up -- of course! -- falling in love.

May 22 will see only one opening, but it could be the summer's biggest blockbuster. The film is Paramount and Lucasfilm's "Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and it will face no other wide openings over the Memorial Day weekend that officially kicks off the summer of '08. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Harrison Ford, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, Michelle Yeoh and Kate Capshaw. In the fourth episode of the franchise, Ford returns as Indy and travels to the lost city of Atlantis.

The first three films in the "Indy" series have grossed over $619 million domestically, a number that's even more impressive when you remember that they were released in 1981 ("Raiders of the Lost Ark"), 1984 ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") and 1989 ("Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade").

A logjam of product is already set to open May 30. First there's Universal's romantic comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," directed by Nicholas Stoller (feature directorial debut) and starring Kristin Bell and Jason Segel. Segel plays Peter, a heartbroken guy who heads to Hawaii for a vacation to try to forget about his former girlfriend, TV sitcom star Sarah Marshall (Bell). Naturally, Sarah turns up right there at the same exclusive resort with the new love of her life. Meanwhile, Peter meets Rachel (Mila Kunis), a beautiful resort worker who helps him do some forgetting.

Also coming May 30 is MGM's family live action-animated feature "Gnomes," directed by Kyle Newman and Micah Herman. Its story is about a boy who discovers that the gnomes in his family's backyard garden are actually alive.

New Line's comedy drama "Sex and the City" also arrives May 30. Directed by Michael Patrick King (who directed 10 episodes of the smash HBO series), it reunites series' stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Chris Noth. If the audience that made the HBO program must-see TV year after year after year turns out to see it on the big screen, this could be one of the summer's top hits. If they feel they've overdosed on "Sex" reruns at home and think they know the new film's story thanks to all the media coverage it received while in production in New York, the results could be disappointing.

Fox and New Regency's sci-fi comedy "Starship Dave" is also launching May 30. Directed by Brian Robbins ("Norbit"), it stars Eddie Murphy, Gabrielle Union, Elizabeth Banks and Ed Helms. Its story involves miniature aliens whose spaceship is in human form and winds up falling in love with an earth woman.

June 6 will kick off with DreamWorks and Paramount's animated family feature "Kung Fu Panda," directed by John Stevenson (four episodes of the hit series "Father of the Pride") and Mark Osborne ("Dropping Out"), and featuring such voice talents as Jackie Chan, Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Ian McShane. In the film Po the Panda (Black's voice) must become a Kung Fu master to save the Valley of Peace from an evil snow leopard.

Also set for June 6 is Sony's comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," directed by Dennis Dugan ("I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry") and starring Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Maria Carey, Henry Winkler and Talia Shire. It's story revolves around a Mossad agent who fakes his own death in order to become a hair stylist in New York. Films starring Sandler, by the way, have grossed over $1.4 billion domestically so it's probably a good idea to figure "Zohan" will connect with its audience.

June 13 will see Fox unveil its suspense thriller "The Happening," written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring are Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo. It's a tale about a family running from a natural crisis that presents a major threat to humanity. Shyamalan's last film, "Lady in the Water," was a major disappointment in the summer of '06, grossing just $42.3 million. But "Happening" could happen entirely differently depending on how scary it is.

Also arriving June 13 is Universal and Marvel Enterprises' fantasy action adventure "The Incredible Hulk," directed by Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter") and starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Christina Cabot, Tim Blake Nelson, Lou Ferrigno and Ty Burrell. Norton plays physicist Bruce Banner, who's on the run trying to avoid being captured until he can cure the condition that turns him into a big green monster.

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's action comedy "Get Smart" arrives in theaters June 20. Directed by Peter Segal ("Anger Management"), it stars Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp and James Caan. The film, of course, is based on the classic TV series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (138 episodes were produced from 1965-70) about Agent 86, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams on TV and Carrell in the movie), and his partner, Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon on TV and Hathaway in the movie).

Paramount and Spyglass Entertainment's comedy "The Love Guru" also opens June 20. Directed by Marco Schnabel (feature directorial debut), it stars Mike Myers, Jessica Alba, Romany Malco, Justin Timberlake and Ben Kingsley. Myers plays Pitka, an American raised in India by gurus, who returns to America to get into the self-help business.

Disney and Pixar's animated feature "Wall-E" opens June 27. Directed and written by Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo"), its voice talents include Fred Willard and Jeff Garlin. Wall-E is a robot in the year 2700 who's looking for a home in outer space.

Universal's "Wanted" is also arriving June 27. Universal recently moved the fantasy action thriller from its original March 28 date because the studio felt it has what it takes to compete with the event titles of the summer. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (the pioneering ultra-visual director of "Night Watch," Russia's most successful film franchise), it stars Morgan Freeman, James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.

"Wanted" is based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar. McAvoy plays Wes, a young disaffected worker whose estranged father is murdered, after which Wes is recruited by a woman named Fox (Jolie) into a secret society, the Fraternity, that trains him to avenge his father's death by unlocking his dormant powers.

July Fourth 2008 falls on a Friday, so films arriving for the holiday weekend are opening Wed., July 2. Sony will be there with the fantasy action adventure "Hancock," directed by Peter Berg ("The Kingdom") and starring Will Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron. Its story revolves around a superhero (Smith) who's no longer popular with the public and becomes involved with the wife (Theron) of the PR man (Bateman), who's trying to improve his image. Smith, of course, just scored December's biggest opening ever with "I Am Legend" ($77.2 million for three days) and is as hot as a superstar could be so "Hancock" seems a good bet to generate big boxoffice fireworks.

Also set for July 2 is Picturehouse's family drama "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," directed by Patricia Rozema (three episodes of HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me") and starring Abigail Breslin, Joan Cusack, Chris O'Donnell, Julia Ormond, Wallace Shawn, Stanley Tucci and Jane Krakowski. The film, based on the American Girl line of dolls and books for girls, is the story of a 9-year-old girl growing up during the hardships of the Great Depression.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 18, 1990's column: "Having predicted here in early June that Paramount's 'Ghost' could be 'this summer's sleeper hit,' I was delighted to see it open to a glittering $12.2 million at 1,101 screens.

"'It would be an understatement if we said we were anything but ecstatic with the performance of the movie,' Paramount Motion Picture Group president Barry London told me ... We believed early on. Jerry (director Jerry Zucker) was kind enough to show us the movie very early and we got a look at rough cut back in the mid-spring period. From that time on we believed we had something unique, very wonderful and very special. It was a question of bringing the film to the market and trying to put it into what at that time we had certainly already perceived to be an intensively competitive summer, but at the same time to give the film an opportunity and a window where it could exist among all the competition."

"Given its spirited opening, it's understandable that Paramount is widening 'Ghost's' run: 'We'll be adding at least 300 screens Friday. And then we will add on July 27 a number of screens as yet to be determined, but it will be a substantial number. We've never wanted the movie to get ahead of itself and we wanted (to let circulate) what we believed would be terrific word of mouth. The screenings we had done here at the lot had indicated that..."

"I asked Zucker how 'Ghost' came about. 'Actually, this project wasn't developed by me, it was developed by Paramount,' Zucker told me. 'I was at ShoWest promoting 'The Naked Gun' and was talking to Lindsay Doran, who at the time was an executive at Paramount. I was looking for something and asked, 'What do you have?' She was running through their films and she said, 'And then there's the script I think is the best script here at Paramount -- but it's not a comedy. It's called 'Ghost."

"Recalling the story, Zucker adds with a smile that he asked to see the script: 'So she sent it and, of course, I put it on a pile of 10 scripts and didn't pay any attention to it. Then my wife picked it up, read it and loved it. She said, 'Jerry, you've got to read this -- no food or sex until you read this!' So I read it and I liked it. Then I met with (screenwriter) Bruce Rubin and really got locked into this project and the potential of what it could be.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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