Summer 2006 boxoffice wrap

Movies with broad-based appeal reversed last year's declining fortunes.

On the surface, at least, Hollywood was happier this summer than Captain Jack Sparrow's band of merry buccaneers as it rediscovered a treasure chest of boxoffice gold. A year ago, that treasure seemed to have gone missing -- ticket sales were in decline, and gloom spread throughout the industry. But almost as mysteriously as they wandered away last year, moviegoers returned en masse to the multiplex. They didn't necessarily buy everything the studios were pitching their way: Sparrow's ship the Black Pearl certainly proved seaworthy, but the luxurious Poseidon sank even faster than its story line decreed.

Still, the highs were high enough to restore some luster to the whole practice of going to the movies. Walt Disney Pictures' action-packed sequel "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" rode a veritable tidal wave of its own, becoming the summer's -- and the year's-to-date -- biggest-grossing movie, commanding $414.2 million. The next three movies grossed more than $200 million: Pixar Animation Studios' "Cars," also released by Buena Vista, raced to $242.0 million; 20th Century Fox's third installment of its Marvel-ous superheroes, "X-Men: The Last Stand," soared to $234.3 million; and Sony Pictures' religious-themed thriller "The Da Vinci Code" ascended to $217.5 million.

By comparison, no movie cracked the $400 million mark last summer. Fox's "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" was the top grosser with $379.8 million. Beneath it, there were three $200 million-plus movies: Paramount Pictures' "War of the Worlds," at $232.6 million; Warner Bros. Pictures' "Batman Begins," at $203.6 million; and Warners' "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," at $201.3 million. But collectively, they didn't pack as much punch as this year's more potent $200 million grossers.

As a result, the overall downward turn the boxoffice took last summer -- coming after four years of steadily improving grosses -- again changed course, once again moving upward.

For the 15 weeks of this summer, as traditionally measured from the start of the Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the national boxoffice total was $3.38 billion, up more than 9% from last summer's $3.09 billion. In terms of dollars collected, it is the second-best summer on record, trailing only 2004's $3.45 billion.

Measured by actual admissions, though, the season was not quite as healthy. Estimated admissions rose to 514.5 million, up 7% from last summer's 480.6 million. But that still put admissions 7.7% below the record 2004 tally of 557.4 million. In fact, in terms of admissions, summer 2006 was only the eighth-best summer on record during the past 24 years.

Whatever factors might have been inhibiting moviegoers from rushing out to theaters -- culprits range from dissatisfaction with theaters themselves to encroaching DVD windows to competing forms of entertainment -- didn't go away overnight, but with the right, broad-based entertainments, Hollywood was able to counter the trends. At the same time, audiences were selective, and while the biggest movies did prove bigger than last summer's fare, there also were plenty of movies, including some widely promoted titles, that were summarily dismissed.

For adherents of the cyclical theory of moviegoing, which holds that several up years inevitably are followed by a number of down years before the cycle begins anew, this year's rebound could signal the beginning of a longer-term rebound. For example, boxoffice rose from 1997-99, then fell for one year in 2000 before growing for an unprecedented four years through 2004, then declining in 2005. Whether this summer represents the beginning of another upswing remains to be seen.

As well as this year's leaders performed, they didn't quite measure up to 2004's top draws. That summer, "Shrek 2" grossed more than $436.7 million by season's end. The second-ranked film, "Spider-Man 2," took in $369.9 million.

"Dead Man's Chest" is now No. 6 among all-time domestic grossers, but it ranks below No. 3 "Shrek 2," with $441.2 million in its account. "Cars," this summer's second-ranked film, currently sits in 42nd place, a long way below 2004's No. 2, "Spider-Man 2," which ranks 10th.

Altogether this summer, 11 films crested the $100 million mark, matching 2004's total. That represents an improvement over last summer, when only nine films grossed more than $100 million. The best year for $100 million-plus movies remains 2003, when 15 films hit that mark.

As for movies that grossed between $50 million-$100 million, this summer's class performed slightly better than last summer's. Twelve movies grossed more than $50 million but less than $100 million this summer. That was better than last year, when 11 films fell in that category, but not quite as good as 2004, when 13 pictures ended up in that range.

Critics might bemoan Hollywood's continuing reliance on sequels and remakes, but there is no denying that familiarity sells. Last summer, which saw the boxoffice drop off, only two films in the top 20 were sequels, though there was a healthy sampling of remakes and adaptations.

But summer 2006 put more reliance on sequels and remakes. Of the top 20 films, four were direct sequels: "Dead Man's Chest," "X-Men 3," "Mission: Impossible III" ($133.5 million) and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" ($62.4 million). "Superman Returns" ($195.8 million), picking up where 1981's "Superman II" left off, had to be considered something of a quasi-sequel. There was a remake: "Poseidon" ($60.7 million). And "Miami Vice" ($62.3 million) offered a big-screen version of the 1980s TV series.

"Poseidon" and "Vice" might have placed in the top 20, but they nevertheless were deemed disappointments considering that they both carried budgets well in excess of $100 million and arrived with big expectations, as did M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water," which bottomed out at $41.7 million. Although "Snakes on a Plane" was surrounded by plenty of Internet hype that didn't automatically translate into ticket sales, the movie is performing like a conventional horror program, grossing $30 million to date.

Several book-to-screen adaptations hit their marks this summer, beginning with Ron Howard's screen version of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Arguably the biggest surprise hit of the season was David Frankel's adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's satirical novel, "The Devil Wears Prada" ($122 million). And though the market ultimately proved too crowded to accommodate "The Ant Bully," animated movies generally prospered. "Cars" led that pack, but DreamWorks Animation's "Over the Hedge" ($154.8 million) was no slouch, taking sixth place, Sony's "Monster House" ($69.8 million) ranked 14th, and Paramount's "Barnyard" ($63.6 million) squeezed into the 16th position.

It definitely was a family-friendly summer. Of the top 10 films, eight were PG-13, "Cars" was rated G, and "Hedge" was rated PG. Unlike last summer, when the R-rated "Wedding Crashers" made it to the fifth spot, there were no R-rated movies in the top 10. In fact, "Vice" was the only R-rated film in the top 20.

Along the way, a number of records were broken. Bowing on May 26, "X3's" opening four-day gross of $122.9 million established both a Memorial Day weekend record (passing the $90.2 million collected in 1997 by "The Lost World") and a four-day holiday weekend record, overshadowing the $115.8 million that "Spider-Man 2" grabbed over its four-day July Fourth frame. But then, a little more than a month later, "Dead Man's Chest" set new standards, pulling an unprecedented $135.6 million over three days.

"Dead Man's Chest" became the fastest movie to hit $100 million (in just two days) and the fastest to hit $300 million (in 16 days). Along with "Cars," it powered Buena Vista into the summer's market share lead, solidly ahead of second-place Sony and third-place Fox.

In terms of strategy, Hollywood bet on slightly fewer wide releases -- movies opening in 1,000 theaters or more -- this summer. There were 40 wide releases, compared with 42 last year. When it came to ultrawide releases -- movies bowing in more than 3,000 theaters -- 16 movies saturated the multiplex on their opening weekends this summer, compared with 17 a year ago. The number of wide releases between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day tends to fluctuate from year to year, from a low of 37 in 2003 to a high of 45 in 1998.

Buoyed by record-setting openings from "Dead Man's Chest" and "X3," average opening-weekend takes took on impressive dimensions. The average opening weekend for a wide release this summer swelled from $19.6 million last year to $23.7 million. The average opening also involved more theaters -- 2,780 this summer vs. 2,680 last year. The per-theater average on opening weekends also climbed: This summer that figure stood at $8,531 per theater, besting last year's $7,330 per theater.

Of course, what goes up also comes down. But bigger opening weekends managed to hold the line on second-weekend drop-offs. The average second-weekend drop this year was 47%, compared with 49% last year. Actually, this year's trajectory even bettered that of 2004, when average opening weekends of $23.2 million led to 51% second-weekend drops.

Meanwhile, national theater chains continued to consolidate. AMC Entertainment completed its takeover of the Loews Cineplex chain, and in August, Carmike, the third-ranked circuit in the country behind Regal and AMC, announced that it was acquiring Century Theatres. There has been no contraction of screens yet, however. For the summer period, about 38,000 screens handled the available product. That's up by about 1,100 screens from the 36,850 screens in use last summer.

As for the independent film scene, there were no hits on the order of last year's "March of the Penguins," which had attracted more than $63 million by summer's end. But Fox Searchlight's comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," which didn't begin a slow, controlled rollout until July 26, is showing plenty of signs of life and has grossed $35.8 million to date. Its nearest competition on the indie front came from Lionsgate's horror show "The Descent" ($25.4 million), the Weinstein Co.'s "Clerks II" ($24 million) and Paramount Vantage's eco-documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" ($22.8 million).

Whether a long-term upswing at the boxoffice has begun won't be known until next summer. But there are several auspicious signs that bode well for the future.

Buena Vista, which scored the winning one-two punch of a "Pirates" sequel and a Pixar movie this summer, has a similar combination primed for summer 2007 when it will release its third "Pirates" movie as well as a new Pixar offering, "Ratatouille," the tale of an epicurean rat. In addition, Sony is spinning a web with "Spider-Man 3," set for release May 4. Then, on May 18, DreamWorks Animation returns with "Shrek the Third."

With sequels to the third-top-domestic grosser of all time ("Shrek 2"), the sixth-top-film ("Dead Man's Chest"), and the seventh-ranked film ("Spider-Man"), the summer 2007 schedule could be primed to raise the bar over this summer.

Brian Fuson contributed to this report.
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