Summer exceeds boxoffice expectations

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It's been a boxoffice season of surprising strength thanks to unsurprisingly robust sequels and a shockingly lucrative performance by the latest installment in a 19-year-old superhero franchise.

Domestic distributors are especially pleased, as their preseason frowns were quickly turned upside down by mid-summer. Studios had feared the absence of enough obvious highflyers on industry films slates, but their anxieties proved unfounded.

The summer produced three $300 million domestic performers in a nonstop run of popcorn hits launched by the $102 million opening-frame performance of Paramount’s “Iron Man” over the first weekend in May. By month’s end, Paramount also had launched “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” on a similar blockbuster trajectory, while July produced the season’s most jet-propelled performance — Warner Bros.’ Batman sequel “The Dark Knight,” soon to rocket past an amazing $300 million in U.S. and Canadian coin.

With the boxoffice season about to conclude on Labor Day, summer 2008 finds itself in a photo-finish race that could produce yet another record domestic gross and just a modest downtick in admissions because of ticket-price increases. Internationally, the latest summer probably will come to within 5% of the record boxoffice of summer ’07.

 The “Dark Knight” phenomenon well compensated for one fewer $300 million-plus domestic performances compared with last summer, when four films surpassed that milestone, including three May 2007 openers. (Sony’s “Spider-Man 3,” which opened summer ’07, was its top domestic performer at $336.5 million.)

In other season-shaping developments:

--This summer featured six $200 million-plus domestic performers versus seven a year earlier.

--Three of the top 10 were sequels and a fourth — “The Incredible Hulk” — was a franchise do-over; six sequels figured among the top summer rankings last year.

--Four of the top 10 summer films featured superheroes, and five were based on comics or graphic novels; Spidey was 2007’s sole superhero.

--Continuing a recent trend, the summer saw foreign coin save the bacon of more than a few films underperforming in the U.S. and Canada.

International overachievers included Fox’s “What Happens in Vegas” — a highly unusual foreign feat for a comedy — Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and Universal’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and “Mamma Mia!”

“Dollars are dollars, whatever currency they come in,” Universal worldwide marketing and distribution president Adam Fogelson quipped.

Films that underwhelmed internationally included Warner Bros.’ “Speed Racer” and Universal’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

As for non-industry circumstances factoring into the seasonal performances, there was lots of speculation but no clear evidence on whether high gas prices helped keep people closer to home and their neighborhood multiplexes. But industryites do believe that the slack economy generally proved to be a boon to the boxoffice.

“There’s no question that the poor economy historically has given the motion picture a boost,” Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said. “Also, the product was spread out and wasn’t grouped together as it was in ’07, when it was all in May. We opened ‘The Dark Knight’ after the May crunch and had the marketplace pretty much to ourselves for a big tentpole film.”

The reward for Warners: a domestic marketshare crown. Paramount Pictures International took the laurels overseas, with Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” sequel leading the way.

Meantime, despite some speculation in advance of the Olympics that telecasts of the Beijing Games might have hurt the boxoffice, there was scant hard evidence of late-summer grosses being hammered by the small-screen competition.

“If you look at the raw numbers, it would be hard to see how it did hurt,” Fellman said. “NBC did a great job making sure that the main events were primetime, but it seemed like the movies that opened up against the Olympics still did well.

Added Sony distribution president Rory Bruer: “It’s quite extraordinary that the Olympics could have the kind of TV ratings that they did and the boxoffice could still continue to perform as well as it did. It says a lot about where people are in their heads, and it seems they just want to escape where they are in their daily lives. That could mean either going out to the theater for a few hours or watching Michael Phelps at home.”

Headed into the long Labor Day weekend — summer’s final boxoffice session — Nielsen EDI data showed domestic tallies of $3.96 billion that are sure to rise to beyond $4 billion by the Monday holiday. Internationally, distributors project a $4.1 billion haul through Sunday.
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