Can superheroes, sequels save summer boxoffice?


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Before each summer, Hollywood crows about how its terrific upcoming movies are sure to reach new heights at the boxoffice.

This year, not so much. Sure, executives will talk a blue streak about individual films and slates, and as always there are some potential blockbusters set to unspool.

But this is the first summer in some time in which firm predictions of boxoffice records are harder to find than pure motives in a mob movie. And a new high in admissions? Fuhgeddaboudit.

This time, the rhetoric is less Barnum & Bailey and more Alan Greenspan as major studio executives attempt to guard against any irrational exuberance over seasonal prospects.

"By definition, last summer offers a tough comparison because there were four movies that made more than $300 million," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says. "It's unlikely there will be four this year, but the question is how many $200 million movies will there be?"

Among the potential highfliers: Paramount's "Iron Man" (May 2), Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (May 16), Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (May 22), Warner Bros.' "Get Smart" (June 20), Sony's "Hancock" (July 2) and Warners' "The Dark Knight" (July 18).

Three of those six films are sequels, and a fourth -- "Get Smart" -- boasts built-in audience awareness from its small-screen fame. But with just seven sequels overall compared with 13 last summer, the industry's seasonal prospects swing in large part on whether any original releases meet their studios' fervent prerelease hopes.

Among original titles, two of the surest bets, bracketing the month of June, come in the form of brand-name animation: Paramount's release of DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda" on June 6 and Disney Animation's June 27 launch of Pixar's "Wall-E."

Boxoffice potential is only that, and many an executive ulcer will churn until the studios' biggest event films actually hit the marketplace. One saving grace might be that in an era when 4,000-plus playdates is suddenly de rigueur for tentpole releases, execs know early in their first weekend of release whether to freshen their resumes or fashion pitches for fat raises.

Last summer, seasonal boxoffice -- running from the first weekend in May to Labor Day -- totaled a record $4.16 billion, the first $4 billion-plus summer ever. This summer, the industry consensus predicts that a new revenue high is unlikely, so perhaps a more realistic target would be getting north of $4 billion for the second time.

As for theater admissions, the industry hasn't seen a record set for summer ticket sales since 2003. Price inflation has accounted for revenue records set since then, so it will be even tougher to beat last year's mark of 609.2 million admissions.

Regardless of how the industry boxoffice pans out this summer, the season arrives with the usual array of haves and have-nots.

New Line belongs, quite literally, in the latter category, having recently lost control of its film distribution to corporate sibling Warners. But even before it took on New Line's lineup, which includes the feature film version of "Sex and the City" (May 30) and "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D" (July 11), Warners already was sitting pretty.

It boasts a big sequel in the Christian Bale starrer "Dark Knight" and a proven gals-night-out pleaser in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" (Aug. 8). "Pants," of course, won't gross anything close to the Batman sequel, but it represents a zero-risk payout from the movie-sequel ATM machine.

Still, the studio's real slate test lies with two adaptations of 1960s TV shows: "Get Smart" and the PG live-action film "Speed Racer" (May 9), starring Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild") in the title role.

"They're very different, but both have reached mass audiences and were strong enough television shows that they lasted for years," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman says.

Fellman also believes that the studio's animated feature "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Aug. 15) should gross more than $100 million.

Universal also appears relatively well-stocked with good-looking summer merchandise.

"It's such a diverse variety of really commercial and really great films," Universal chairman Marc Shmuger says. "There are unknown properties, new titles, established brands. But they are all really strong, committed, commercial films with real defined audiences."

Universal has a pair of sequels, with "The Incredible Hulk" (June 13) considered more of a remake. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (July 11), from genre fan favorite Guillermo del Toro, should outperform the first "Hellboy," and the threequel "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" (Aug. 1) would surprise only by greatly underperforming the franchise's first two big hits.

Universal's "unknown" titles also could include a couple of possible overachievers.

"Wanted" -- an assassin thriller starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy set for June 27 -- drew possibly the biggest reaction during Universal's summer reel presentation at March's ShoWest exhibition confab in Las Vegas. And "Mamma Mia!" (July 18) is going to be either one of the summer's breakout surprises, a la last summer's "Hairspray," or a quick entry in the category of Musicals That Didn't Work. But most feel the former is more likely.

Some believe that Universal's summer prospects are the hardest to project, with the potential of big upside if everything works and the chance for big disappointment if too much goes awry.

Paramount -- which topped summer '07 tallies on the strength of DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" and the DreamWorks/Paramount co-production "Transformers" -- appears locked into a trio of near sure-shots.

Besides the "Indiana Jones" sequel and Marvel Studios' "Iron Man," Paramount's summer plans include DWA's "Panda," one of Hollywood's four animated features getting wide release this summer. Paramount also figures in something of a smackdown June 20, when its Mike Myers comedy "The Love Guru" goes up against Warners' "Get Smart."

Disney, which limits its bets, should have a relatively risk-free summer, featuring two sure hits in "Narnia" and "Wall-E."

"It's always nice when at least on paper it looks like you've got the goods," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane says. "Then it's just a matter of going out there and performing."

Fox's summer slate seems a bit light -- some will read that as risk-averse -- but execs insist that releases including the Mark Wahlberg starrer "The Happening" (June 13), from tall-tale spinner M. Night Shyamalan, and a still-untitled "X-Files" sequel (July 25) hold lucrative possibilities.

"What we have is a very, very solid slate that has something for everybody," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder says.

At Sony, the emphasis is on star power. Besides the Will Smith vehicle "Hancock," destined to dominate the Fourth of July holiday, Sony has the Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" (June 6), a Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly pairing in "Step Brothers"  (July 25) and the Seth Rogen-toplined "Pineapple Express" (Aug. 8).

"I don't think you can ever have too much comedy in the summer," Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Jeff Blake says. "Last summer, everybody was saying, 'Where's the comedy?' This time some people are saying there's too much, but I don't see why they all wouldn't work."

Blake is one of the more bullish studio execs when it comes to prognosticating the industrywide prospects for summer '08.

"We certainly had some blue-chip sequels last year," he recalled of a season topped by his own $337 million grosser "Spider-Man 3." "But we have some great movie-star pictures this year, and there's pretty much an event picture every weekend."

That latter point, though, could prove a problem for distributors.

The summer's 50 wide releases is a lower industry film count than in any summer since 2004, yet there still will be precious few stretches in which major releases can put together big back-to-back weekends. Although movies are able to sock away big bucks during their first weekends these days, production costs of $200 million and more on many tentpoles mean market playability still can be key to film profitability.

Viewing the wide-release clutter throughout much of the summer, at least a couple distributors are hoping to stimulate market buzz for their specialty films with a strategy of bicoastal exclusive openings followed by ambitious expansions.

Lionsgate has Bill Maher's "Religulous" set for New York and Los Angeles engagements June 20, with plans to expand the provocative documentary into several hundred locations by July 4 if word-of-mouth is strong.

Similarly, Focus Features has its quirky comedy "Hamlet 2," starring Steve Coogan and Catherine Keener, slotted for Aug. 22 exclusives with an expansion into wide release scheduled for the Labor Day frame. Yet even there the wannabe sleeper hit will have to deal with a competitive buzz saw.

Labor Day often has been a relatively soft boxoffice session, recently marked by one or more horror releases, but not this year. Besides "Hamlet 2," the season-ending session will feature wide openers that include Fox's Vin Diesel starrer "Babylon A.D.," the MGM comedy "College" and the Overture drama "Traitor."

Even if the summer fails to top last year's records, Hollywood still expects to keep the turnstiles turning all season long.  

"Iron Man," "Indiana Jones" and "Hancock" unspool without major competition,
but a handful of summer weekends offer some intriguing opening-frame matchups. A list follows.

Fox's "What Happens in Vegas ..."  vs. Warners' "Speed Racer"
The $100 million-budgeted "Speed" should leave the Ashton Kutcher-Cameron Diaz rom-com in the dust. But the PG Emile Hirsch starrer could play young, and even a photo finish could be potentially embarrassing.

Paramount's "The Love Guru" vs. Warners' "Get Smart"
Execs have been scratching their heads over how Par thinks it can compete with Warners' sitcom spinoff. But it's tough to bet against "Guru's" Mike Myers (2002's "Austin Powers in Goldmember" opened to $73 million).

Disney's "Wall-E"  vs. Universal's "Wanted"
There's little overlap in the target demos of the Pixar
animated feature and Uni's Angelina Jolie-James McAvoy thriller. It could be a win-win situation for the industry boxoffice.

Warners' "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D" vs. Universal's "Hellboy II"
The "Hellboy" sequel should win the frame, but it will be interesting to see how the PG-rated "Journey" does both as a test of the handoff from New Line to Warners and the draw of 3-D images without an adult-oriented script.

"Mamma Mia!" vs. Warners' "The Dark Knight"
Uni has counterprogrammed, but the "Batman" sequel should play big enough to either raise all ships or sink those in its wake. Fox also will unspool its animated "Space Chimps," which could siphon family audiences. Universal's

AUG. 29
Vin Diesel vs. Too Many Others
The Labor Day frame has Diesel battling a Messianic cult in Fox's "Babylon A.D." as well as three other wide openers -- MGM's "College," Overture's "Traitor" and the first weekend in wide release for Focus' "Hamlet 2." Summer's final session could end up a battle royale -- over crumbs.