Hype rules H'wood as summer pics unspool

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The summer movie season is upon us. Let the hyperbole begin!

Today, Sony Pictures unleashes "Spider-Man 3" in a record 4,252 theaters, and by Sunday morning, if not before, it will become clear whether Spidey has overtaken Captain Jack Sparrow for the honor of biggest opening weekend of all time, a formidable challenge since the bar set last summer by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" stands at $135.6 million.

In the meantime, everyone -- Hollywood execs, moviegoers and certainly the media -- is likely to lose all sense of perspective, a phenomenon that happens every summer as the would-be blockbusters roll out.

The media, especially the consumer press, are all too eager to proclaim such high-profile movies an instant hit or an immediate miss. Each summer, there are a few big-budget movies whose failure to launch is immediately apparent. (Remember Warner Bros. Pictures' ill-fated "Poseidon" last summer?) But for most big-budget gambles, the evidence is more ambiguous and won't start coming into focus until the second or third weekend of a film's release.

In the rush to proclaim instant winners or losers, though, the media is playing to entertainment consumers, who come summertime are all too willing to turn into lemmings, eager to participate en masse in the next big thing. As digital media proliferates, much has been written about the growth of niche micromarkets with audiences splintering into thousands of discrete interest groups. But when it comes to summer entertainment, a herd mentality still prevails. (It's not restricted to movies, either -- the eventual "American Idol" finale on TV this month and the publication of the final "Harry Potter" novel in July also are guaranteed to post huge numbers.)

Of course, the studios are looking to corral that mass, four-quadrant audience with the help of enormous blockbusters that demand attention. Given the huge budgets involved as well as the massive marketing expenditures, the costs factors are so high that it would take a court-ordered audit to figure out the ultimate profitability of such projects.

"Spider-Man 3," for example, is officially pegged at $258 million, though skeptics insist the final budget could well be higher. For that money, Sony could have arguably turned out a half-dozen $40 million-$60 million movies. Would a broader slate of more modestly budgeted movies ultimately prove more profitable? The studios, increasingly putting more of their eggs in fewer baskets, don't think so, but there are a number of new start-up companies, such as Overture Films and Summit Entertainment, that are betting more modestly budgeted fare is the way to go.

Of course, even when the dust from the big blockbusters settles by summer's end, the surviving ones, if successful, continue to be the gifts that keep on giving. They become profit centers driving other endeavors.

The Walt Disney Co., for example, used the success of its "Pirates" franchise to retool its venerable Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, and in the summer it will borrow characters from "Finding Nemo" to revive its old submarine ride in Tomorrowland. To woo DVD viewers to its new Blue-ray Disc format, Sony packaged a Blue-ray DVD of last summer's hit "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" with its PlayStation 3. The eventual Blue-ray version of "Spidey 3" could prove another weapon in the ongoing standards battle between Blue-ray and Toshiba's HD DVD.

In the end, the boxoffice figures, no matter how high they go in what promises to be a record-breaking summer, will only tell a part of the story.
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