Summer Boxoffice Preview 2009

With the recession pumping up theater attendance, how high can summer boxoffice fly?

Let the bad times roll.

That's the mantra for film distribution executives, whose usual enthusiasm for their summer tentpoles might be especially justified this year given the recession's impact on moviegoing.

As usual, there will be plenty of familiar faces at the multiplex -- including nine sequels or franchise extensions, compared with seven last year -- and less emphasis on comic book adaptations. But the summer's real secret weapon could be the nation's economic misery, judging from the boxoffice's recent marketplace roll.

Give consumers something fun or fantastic at the multiplexes and they gladly will shell out for the opportunity to escape financial worries for a couple of hours. That seems to be the chief year-to-date lesson (skeptics should consider "Paul Blart: Mall Cop's" $142 million domestic gross).

The industry rang up a healthy $4.13 billion last summer and a record $4.16 billion in 2007, according to Nielsen EDI. And through the first three months of this year, boxoffice is up about 2%, causing predictions of record grosses from May 1 to Labor Day to proliferate faster than sequels in a slasher franchise.



"X-Men Origins: Wolverine"
"Given how strong the marketplace has been -- in what's traditionally been considered a softer time of year -- the sky is the limit," Universal marketing and distribution chief Adam Fogelson says. "I am very excited about what I believe can happen through the entirety of the summer."

Distributors have done a decent job this year spreading around summer tentpoles, and that should help bolster opening-weekend returns. But a trend toward big second-week drops is sure to continue.

Fox should jump out to a strong start May 1 with its "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," an extension of the "X-Men" franchise starring Hugh Jackman. Warner Bros., which topped summer market share last year, will go for the date-movie crowd this summer with its "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. Lionsgate sends out the 3-D animated actioner "Battle for Terra."

"We look toward the competition in making decisions about dates, and in this case it's really about counter-programming," Warners distribution topper Dan Fellman says.

Fox long ago staked claim to Memorial Day weekend for its effects-driven comedy sequel "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." But the Ben Stiller starrer will hardly be competition-free. Warners unspools "Terminator Salvation," the fourth film in the franchise and the first without Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the Wednesday of that week. And Paramount's Wayans brothers comedy "Dance Flick" hits theaters May 22.

"You will really have three distinct movies in the marketplace at that point," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder says, adding that Sony's 'Angels & Demons' unspools the week before but should play well through Memorial Day.

" 'Night at the Museum' is going to be enormously huge, and 'Terminator Salvation' is going to be really big, too," predicts a top studio exec with no connection to either film. "So it's going to be an especially big Memorial Day weekend."


"Up"
The first animated tentpole hits multiplexes May 29, when Disney/Pixar's "Up" unspools in 3,000-plus locations after premiering at the Festival de Cannes.

"Pixar stretches outside the boundaries of 'been there-done that' every time they do a movie," Disney distribution topper Chuck Viane says.

Analyst Rich Greenfield of Pali Capital dissed prospects for "Up" based on a screening of a 46-minute clip, saying he fears it will underperform the $224 million domestic haul of 2008's "WALL-E." But industry buzz is otherwise broadly upbeat for the fantasy adventure.

Arguably, Paramount has the season's most highly anticipated film: the DreamWorks-produced action sequel "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," set for a midweek bow June 24.

"Nothing is a sure shot," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says. "But the first 'Transformers' was incredibly well-received, and the DVD was very successful. So we definitely have a lot of momentum going into this one."


"Star Trek"
Moore also rates Aug. 7 opener "G.I. Joe" as key to the studio's summer along with the high-profile "Star Trek" reboot from "Mission: Impossible III" helmer J.J. Abrams. The 11th film in the sci-fi franchise details the first mission of Starfleet Academy grads Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto).

At Universal, the Will Ferrell action fantasy "Land of the Lost" bows June 5 against light competition, boasting merchandise tie-ins and potentially broad appeal thanks to its "Jurassic Park"-meets-"Saturday Night Live" premise. One of the pic's biggest promo partnerships involves the Subway sandwich chain, which debuted a "Land" trailer in one of its broadcast spots.

Universal's Michael Mann-helmed "Public Enemies," starring Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, opens on a Wednesday before to the long -- and lucrative -- Independence Day frame.

"I am through-the-roof, to-the-moon euphoric about how this movie is going to come into the marketplace," Fogelson says.

Fox's animated sequel "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" is scheduled for saturation release on the same date. But with their clearly distinct audiences, "Enemies" -- certain to get an R rating from the MPAA -- and the family-friendly "Dinosaurs" should complement each other.

Universal has an adult comedy slotted just behind "Enemies," with Sacha Baron Cohen's "Bruno" set to unspool July 10.


"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
Elsewhere in midseason action, Warners fattened its summer slate considerably when it shifted "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from last November to July 17. The previous "Potter" opened with $77 million in July 2007, and the delay in releasing "Prince" has only stoked fan fervor.

No distributor has dared to place a wide opener opposite "Prince," but the next frame brings Jerry Bruckheimer's 3-D family actioner "G-Force" from Disney and Sony's R-rated romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth," which stars Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler.

The latter studio also has the Meryl Streep-Amy Adams starrer "Julie & Julia," directed by Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle"), likely to dominate buzz among moviegoing females in mid-August.

Sony will look to start its summer strongly with "Angels" and its Tony Scott-helmed remake of cop thriller "The Taking of Pelham 123," which hits multiplexes June 12. Boasting topliner Denzel Washington, "Pelham" could be challenged by moviegoers' recent preference for more escapist fare.

A Super Bowl spot for Sony's June 19 tentpole -- the effects-driven Jack Black comedy "Year One" -- scored strongly in one survey after the telecast but proved less memorable in another viewer poll. Studio execs appear unfazed.

"It's a picture that's definitely going to hit the high note with its core audience: young teens to young adults," Sony distribution boss Rory Bruer says.

Notable summer releases by indie distributors include Quentin Tarantino's Brad Pitt starrer "Inglourious Basterds," which the Weinstein Co. has slotted for Aug. 21. So far, the World War II actioner has the session to itself, but additional jockeying over late-summer slots could change that.

The Weinsteins' horror pic "Halloween 2" is set for Aug. 28, one frame ahead of the summer-concluding Labor Day session. By that point, if everything goes as planned, those ripping tickets at multiplex entrances should be ready for carpal tunnel therapy.

"On paper, this could be one of the strongest summers we've seen," Snyder says.
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