Record summer sked beckons ShoWest

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It's been called the summer of sequels, but the next few months also is being viewed by industry insiders as a potentially record-breaking season of riches. Starting with Sony's "Spider-Man 3," set to open May 4, and ending with New Line's "Rush Hour 3," slated to open Aug. 10, the schedule is stacked with high-profile releases that are expected to fill theaters and get cash registers cranking.

"You could call it the year of the sequel, the year of the blockbuster -- whatever you want to call it," says one studio distribution president. "It'll probably have its own name after the summer is over. It's going to be big!" It's on that buoyant note that the exhibition industry convenes in Las Vegas for the annual ShoWest convention, running through Thursday at the city's Bally's and Paris hotels.

"May is very heavy with blockbusters," Carmike Cinemas vp film Larry Collins says. "You have 'Spider-Man,' and two weeks later comes (Paramount's 'Shrek the Third') then (Buena Vista's) 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.' And as great as ('Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest') did last year, it wasn't even released on a holiday weekend. This year it opens on Memorial Day weekend."

If the summer of 2007 lives up to expectations, it could turn out to be the biggest summer-boxoffice season in history, shattering the record held by the summer of 2004, when 557.4 million admissions generated roughly $3.5 billion in revenue during the 15 week period between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The number of screens in operation has risen since 2004, and the expanded capacity will be a boon to the business this summer, as anyone who wants to find a seat at the theater should have an easier time.

A record summer season could lift not only boxoffice but admission numbers to new heights as well. The biggest year at the boxoffice also was 2004, with $9.5 billion collected at the turnstiles. But 2004 was helped along by slightly higher ticket prices. The admissions crown is held by 2002 at 1.6 billion -- the highest tally since 1957, when 1.7 billion admissions were reported.

Among the films that are expected to get the record mojo going this year: Warner Bros. Pictures' "Ocean's Thirteen" and Sony's "Surf's Up," both set to open June 8, Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," slated for June 15, and Universal's "Evan Almighty," set for June 22.

The hit parade continues with Buena Vista's "Ratatouille" on June 29, Paramount's "Transformers" on July 4, Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix," and New Line's "Hairspray" on July 20 and Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" on July 27.

"Lines beget lines," Buena Vista president of distribution Chuck Viane says. "You get people in there seeing the trailers for the fall movies and one thing triggers another. That's the really great thing about our business. When we're on a roll, there's a snowball effect."

Each studio has a couple of potential summer blockbusters, but could there be too much of a good thing? In the past, there has been more "breathing room" between films, the studio exec posits, wondering if the titles will step on each other's shelf life. "It will be interesting to see if this is a summer where we open big for a week then go away quickly."

But while the studios might fret the fate of individual films, the sheer number of big films opening seems to make it a no-lose situation for theater owners.

"This is a cyclical business and very dependent on product," Regal Entertainment Group CEO Mike Campbell says. "We had a good year in 2006, and I think what we've got upcoming in 2007 looks very, very strong. So I expect to see further recovery."

According the MPAA, U.S. boxoffice revenue rose 5.5% from $8.99 billion in 2005 to $9.49 billion last year, reversing two years of declines that had some observers positing that the cinema experience was being displaced by home theaters, TiVo, video games and the like.

In retrospect, pundits are writing off the 2005 slump to a paucity of product. Based on the strong 2007 lineup, Bank of America analyst Michael Savner recently bumped up his growth estimate for this year from 4.8% previously to 5%.

Theater owners have also been quite enterprising about building revenue opportunities that don't involve movies. Cineplex Entertainment president and CEO Ellis Jacob has struck a deal with Canada's Scotiabank to "name" cinemas, a la sports arenas. He's also scheduling HD telecasts of alternative content including live wrestling, hockey and performances by New York's Metropolitan Opera that consistently sell out, turning quiet afternoons into cash generators.

Conscientious effort on the part of exhibition to upgrade the moviegoing experience is also helping. Theaters have been upgrading to more comfortable seating and lobby environments as well as in technical areas like sound, digital projection and 3-D.

"There's a lot of good intentions to enhance the moviegoing experience," DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg says. "I've met with many people on that side of the business and found them ambitious about innovating."

"They've been investing in their business," echoes Clark Woods, president of domestic distribution for MGM. "That's positive for our long-term health because exhibition is the engine that drives the locomotive of filmed entertainment."

The team effort is paying off. "Distributors want to make the best movies we can, and theater owners are thinking along the lines of how are we going to make it better for consumers?," Sony Pictures president of domestic distribution Rory Bruer says. "Nobody's complacent, and nobody's resting on the past. We're all looking to the future and making great entertainment that's going to keep audiences interested."

-- Brian Fuson contributed to this report

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