Summer boxoffice ahead of 2007

Domestic grosses up for three consecutive weekends

Against considerable odds, the summer boxoffice suddenly is sizzling.

Three consecutive weekends of big year-over-year upticks in domestic grosses has the seasonal boxoffice pacing ahead of summer 2007 for the first time. This season is just 2% ahead so far, but weekend comparisons with year-ago grosses look manageable over the next three frames.

Many had expected the sequels-challenged summer to lag the record '07 summer boxoffice substantially, and that certainly was the case throughout May. Here's what's gone right since then:

-- "Iron Man" has shown legs of steel.

-- Boxoffice underachievers have been few.

-- "Kung Fu Panda," "Sex and the City" and "The Incredible Hulk" opened better than expected.

"Iron Man" this week is likely to become the year's first $300 million grosser, a feat few would have predicted for the Robert Downey Jr. starrer before its release. Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" also appears on track reach that magical benchmark, and executives are feeling good about the clear public appetite for entertaining film fare.

"There have been seven straight weekends in which a movie has done $50 million or more over that one weekend," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said. "That goes to show that if the movies are compelling, a big audience will show up."

On the other hand, Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," once considered likely to gross at least $300 million domestically, is now unlikely to ring up even half that amount. And more predictably, Warner Bros. "Speed Racer" turned out to be every bit the Edsel industryites feared before the boxoffice season began.

But though Warners' "Sex and the City" also drew considerable prerelease skepticism, the now-$120 million grosser has left doubters looking silly.

"After we saw the movie, we realized how exceptional it was, (but) even we never anticipated the frenzy that it created," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said.

Arguably, there's at least one more reason behind the summer's surprising boxoffice strength: Marvel Entertainment got into the movie-production business. Fledgling Marvel Studios produced both "Iron Man" and the "Hulk" remake.

"We decided 41⁄2 years ago to start our own studio, and it just took some time to get that accomplished," Marvel Studios chairman David Maisel said. "But if it wasn't for that, those two movies might not have existed."

The recently buoyant domestic boxoffice is particularly welcome considering that foreign coin also was light during May. Foreign grosses also have been surprisingly strong in June, but the European boxoffice will continue to face stiff competition from Euro 2008 soccer telecasts throughout the month.

Meanwhile, the next three weekends will feature comparisons with year-ago frames whose industry tallies appear beatable, at least domestically. So the summer '08 turnaround could continue through month's end.

This weekend will see Warners and Paramount face off in a comedy smackdown as the former's "Get Smart" bows against the latter's "The Love Guru." The rival comedies might bruise each other at the boxoffice, but their combined hauls should boost industry grosses nicely as the session seeks to outperform a $132 million year-ago frame topped by a lightweight $31 million bow for "Evan Almighty."

The next weekend's year-ago competition is tougher": a $155 million session topped by the lucrative tag team of "Ratatouille" and "Live Free or Die Hard." But June 27 openers include Disney/Pixar's animated feature "Wall-E" and Universal's "Wanted," an Angelina Jolie-James McAvoy action film whose prerelease buzz carries signs of a potential overachiever.

"If you're lucky, a couple times a year you have a movie where everything you show gets people more and more excited," said Adam Fogelson, Universal's worldwide marketing and distribution president. "This is one of those films."

Three weekends down the road, the Independence Day frame stacks up against a $174 million session last year that was topped by the $71 million bow of "Transformers." But the '08 frame will boast a not-so-secret weapon named Will Smith, whose superhero turn in "Hancock" will surely lead the weekend boxoffice.

"It's never a bad thing to have the biggest movie star in the world starring in your movie," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said.

Further into July and throughout August, year-over-year comparisons will remain challenging. Yet for all the early hand-wringing over a season featuring far fewer sequels than last summer, Hollywood suddenly is seeing the boxoffice glass half full.

"It's staggering," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "I didn't think it was going to be like this."

The improved seasonal forecast also is helping year-to-date tallies. This year still trails the same portion of '07 by 1% at $3.96 billion.
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