The Guide to Summer Blockbusters

Jay Maidment/Marvel Entertainment

From franchise films to indie pics, THR analyzes the showdowns of the season.

If hollywood is right, it's going to be a huge summer at the box office -- big enough to reverse a prolonged downturn that has year-to-date revenue running 20 percent behind 2010. No one can remember a stronger summer lineup, or better mix of product, from sequels to such proven franchises as Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers to original event pics including Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens. Three comic book heroes make their big-screen debuts with Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger, while Peter Chernin and Fox relaunch a franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an origins story. Many are 3D titles, upping their earning potential. On the family side, summer offerings include Kung Fu Panda 2 and Cars 2, followed by franchise hopeful The Smurfs. Jim Carrey returns to the family genre with Mr. Popper's Penguins, based on the beloved children's book, and summer closes with the relaunch of the Spy Kids franchise. On the comedy side, there's enormous potential -- and fierce competition. The R-rated lineup includes The Hangover Part II; the Cameron Diaz-Justin Timberlake pairing in Bad Teacher; and Friends With Benefits, starring Mila Kunis and Timberlake. Tamer summer comedies include the Kevin James vehicle Zookeeper and the Steve Carell-Ryan Gosling starrer Crazy, Stupid, Love. Echoing a sentiment shared by many, DreamWorks Animation's Jeffrey Katzenberg says, "I believe 2011 will be a bigger year than 2010 after this summer."

MAY: Forecast – Hot Start for Summer

For years, hollywood has been stretching out the summer season, opening its tentpoles earlier and earlier in May. This year, there's a joke going around that summer really beings April 29, when Universal opens Fast Five. In truth, the official start is May 6, when Paramount and Marvel Studios debut Thor. The pic stars Chris Hemsworth, who appeared briefly in the latest Star Trek as George Kirk but is best known for his role in Australian soap Home and Away. Paramount is mining the same May weekend it employed to open Marvel's two Iron Man pics.

Warner Bros. is counterprogramming with the romantic comedy Something Borrowed; Sony is doing the same with Jumping the Broom. The next weekend, Screen Gems will look to steal men away from Thor with Priest 3D. Female moviegoers also will be in big demand as Universal competes against Something Borrowed with Bridesmaids.

Not surprisingly, no one has dared to go up against Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides on May 20. The previous Pirates in 2007 opened north of $110 million -- which sounds like a fortune in today's tough box office times. Memorial Day weekend, which gets under way on the 26th, brings two more popular brands: DreamWorks Animation and Paramount's Kung Fu Panda 2 and Warner Bros.' R-rated comedy The Hangover Part II. The indie calendar is just as crowded, with Jodie Foster's i, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life debuting.

May Releases

May 6

  • Thor (Paramount/Marvel, 3D)
  • Jumping the Broom (Sony/TriStar)
  • Something Borrowed (Warner Bros.)

May 13

  • Bridesmaids (Universal)
  • Priest (Sony/Screen Gems, 3D)

May 20

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney, 3D)

May 26

  • The Hangover Part II (Warner Bros.)
  • Kung Fu Panda 2 (Paramount/DreamWorks Animation, 3D)

May 6: Jumping the Broom
Sony's TriStar label is making a bold counterprogramming move by releasing Jumping the Broom on May 6, the first weekend of summer. The comedy targets African-American audiences, often an underserved community during the biggest times of year at the box office. (Tyler Perry's films have never opened in summer, but in late winter, spring or fall.) Directed by Salim Akil, Broom is about two African-American families from very different backgrounds who gather on Martha's Vineyard for a wedding. If the comedy works, it could set a welcome precedent. The cast includes Paula Patton, Laz Alonso, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Mike Epps. Elizabeth Hunter co-wrote the script with Arlene Gibbs.

May 20: Pirates of the Caribbean
For Disney, it's been four long years since the previous Pirates of the Caribbean played on the big screen. The waiting is just about over. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens in theaters May 20, with Johnny Depp returning in the iconic role of Captain Jack Sparrow. Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three films, has departed the franchise, however. Filmmaker Rob Marshall is at the helm of the fourth installment, while Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane join the cast. So far, the Pirates franchise -- the brainchild of former Disney chief Dick Cook -- has grossed $2.68 billion worldwide.

All Month Long: Specialty Showdown
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is far from the only specialty offering in May. The month is chock o' block with indie titles, raising the possibility that they'll cannibalize one another. Jodie Foster's The Beaver, starring Foster and Mel Gibson, opens opposite the Will Farrell drama Everything Must Go on May 6, and then there are three new titles on May 13 -- The First Grader, Hesher and Go for It. Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Adrien Brody, debuts in theaters May 20, following its world premiere at Cannes. Also set to premiere at Cannes is Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life, which goes out May 27 in the U.S.

JUNE: Tentpole Fever

June's Franchise Headline Is  Fox's X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn and opening June 3. The X-Men series is incredibly important to Fox, as it's the studio's premier superhero series. Fox and producer Lauren Shuler Donner envision the prequel as the first in a trilogy of films that take the franchise in a new direction with a younger cast and fresher feel.

The origins story stars James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr. Rose Byrne, January Jones, Kevin Bacon and Nicholas Hoult also star. Set in the 1960s -- against the backdrop of the Kennedy administration and the events of that era, including the Cuban missile crisis -- First Class focuses on the relationship between Xavier and Lehnsherr when they first discovered their powers and before they took the names Professor X and Magneto.

First Class will face competition in its second weekend when Paramount opens J.J. Abrams' Super 8, executive produced by Steven Spielberg. Fox doubles down on June 17 with its family event pic, Mr. Popper's Penguins, starring Jim Carrey. The live-action movie, based on the children's book, was originally going to open in August, but Fox is so high on the movie that it pushed up its release. There's two other potential big titles opening against Popper -- Sony's R-rated comedy Bad Teacher and Warner Bros.' Ryan Reynolds superhero pic Green Lantern. The good news for the three studios is that the three pics each goes after a different audience. Popper only has a week of breathing room before Disney/Pixar's Cars 2 rolls into theaters, but with kids out of school and the Fourth of July holiday approaching, Disney and Fox are hoping there's enough room for both. On the indie front, Focus Features debuts Mike Mills' Ewan McGregor-Christopher Plummer starrer Beginners on June 3 opposite the Weinstein Co.'s coming-of-age drama Submarine.

June Releases

June 3

  • X-Men: First Class (Fox)

June 10

  • Super 8 (Paramount/DreamWorks)
  • Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer (Relativity)

June 17

  • Mr. Popper's Penguins (Fox)
  • Green Lantern (Warner Bros., 3D)
  • Bad Teacher (Sony)

June 24

  • Cars 2 (Disney/Pixar, 3D)

June 10: On Board for Abrams' Super 8
At CinemaCon, the annual convention of theater owners, the footage that drew the most attention included a lengthy clip of J.J. Abrams' Super 8, which pays homage to Steven Spielberg's early films. On paper, Super 8, from Paramount, has everything going against it -- no big stars, an original story, a logline shrouded in mystery -- but what exhibitors saw, they liked. Set in 1979 Ohio, Super 8 follows a group of kids who witness a train wreck as they are shooting a zombie movie late one night at an abandoned station. The twist: The train is coming from Area 51 and contains ominous cargo (no surprise: it's probably an alien). In its marketing materials, Paramount is smartly playing up the fact that Spielberg produced Super 8. The cast includes Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler. Hollywood is often maligned for relying on well-worn franchises: Super 8 could be an exception and might just consolidate Abrams' status as Paramount's most important filmmaker: Having successfully relaunched the Star Trek franchise, he's also now the steward of the Mission: Impossible series.

June 17: Can a Superhero Take Off?
As Warner Bros. says goodbye to Harry Potter, motion picture group president Jeff Robinov is determined to find new franchises to fortify the studio. Green Lantern,from the D.C. Comics universe, is part of that effort. Warners landed a relatively good date for the film, June 17. Green Lantern opens two weeks after X-Men: First Class and has two weeks of breathing room before Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Warners impressed fanboys at WonderCon with footage of  the film, but it's not easy getting a superhero franchise off the ground.

June 24: Cars 2 vs. Kung Fu Panda 2
What's a summer without Pixar or DreamWorks Animation? Kung Fu Panda 2 has almost a month to itself before Cars 2 debuts, and then Cars 2 will play throughout the prosperous July 4th holiday. Exhibitors are psyched about both, having seen extended footage of each at CinemaCon. Cars 2 drew praise for its James Bond-like opening and introduction of the Michael Caine-voiced character Finn McMissile and the Emily Mortimer-voiced Holley Shiftwell. The story has Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) traveling to Europe to compete in the World Grand Prix. The first Cars grossed $462 million worldwide; the first Kung Fu, $631.7 million.

Indies to Watch

  • Beginners (June 3, Focus Features)
  • Submarine (June 3, the Weinstein Co.)
  • The Troll Hunter (June 10, Magnolia)
  • Buck (June 17, IFC)
  • Homework (June 17, Fox Searchlight)

JULY: Mid-Summer Fracnhise Face-Off

The 'bots are back to help celebrate the  Fourth of July. Paramount's Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, the third film in the franchise, opens July 1. Dark of the Moon was shot in 3D and gets a new leading lady, English model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. (Universal counters that weekend with the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts comedy-drama Larry Crowne, directed by Hanks.)

The month's other franchise tentpole is Warner Bros.' final installment in the Harry Potter franchise, also in 3D. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 opens July 15, nearly 10 years after the first title in the wildly popular series debuted on the big screen. Potter is the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, with the first seven titles earning a combined $6.3 billion worldwide. The nostalgia factor is likely to send grosses for the final film soaring as audiences bid goodbye to the boy wizard and his trusted team. On July 22 -- only one week after Potter -- Paramount launches Captain America: The First Avenger. As with Thor, Marvel hopes to launch a superhero franchise with Captain America, which stars Chris Evans. Family titles to watch for: Disney's Winnie the Pooh and Sony's 3D pic The Smurfs

July Releases

July 1

  • Larry Crowne (Universal)
  • Monte Carlo (Fox)
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount, 3D)

July 8

  • Horrible Bosses (Warner Bros./New Line)
  • Zookeeper (Sony/MGM)

July 15

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (Warner Bros., 3D)
  • Winnie the Pooh (Disney)

July 22

  • Captain America: The First Avenger (Paramount/Marvel, 3D)
  • Friends With Benefits (Sony/Screen Gems)

July 29

  • Cowboys & Aliens (Universal/DreamWorks)
  • Crazy, Stupid, Love (Warner Bros.)
  • The Smurfs (Sony, 3D)

July 8: One Day
Last summer, Focus Features struck gold with The Kids Are All Right. Hoping to repeat that success, the specialty label is opening the Anne Hathaway-Jim Sturgess starrer One Day in a limited run on the same weekend as it did Kids. Based on the best-selling book by British author David Nicholls, One Day follows the relationship between a man and woman over a 20-year period. But the Focus film hardly has the specialty marquee to itself. Also opening in July are Sarah's Key, The Guard, Another Earth and The Devil's Double. Remember how busy indie companies were buying films at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals? Hence, the crush.

July 29: Big Move for DreamWorks
After J.J. Abrams Super 8, Universal and DreamWorks' Cowboys & Aliens is the other original event pic of the summer. Directed by Jon Favreau and penned by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby from a story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk, the film stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde. An alien pic set in the Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens is a defining moment for Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg's newest incarnation of DreamWorks, which partnered with Universal on the movie. With a July 29 opening, the hybrid-genre pic stays out of the way of the superhero tentpoles.

All Month Long: Comedy Mash-up
The runaway success of The Hangover in summer 2009 has every Hollywood studio chasing comedies of all shapes, sizes and ratings. The month opens with Fox's tame young female comedy Monte Carlo, headlining Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester and Katie Cassidy. A week later, on July 8, New Line opens Horrible Bosses opposite Sony's Kevin James starrer Zookeeper (they are the only two new wide releases that weekend). That's a lot of comedy. Screen Gems' Mila Kunis-Justin Timberlake R-rated movie Friends With Benefits bows July 22, and then on July 29, Warner Bros. opens Steve Carell-Ryan Gosling starrer Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Indies to Watch

  • One Day (July 8, Focus Features)
  • Another Earth (July 22, Fox Searchlight)
  • Sarah's Key (July 22, the Weinstein Co.)
  • The Guard (July 29, Sony Pictures Classics)
  • The Devil's Double (July 29, Lionsgate)

AUGUST: No Longer a Dumping Ground

The august box office, once a graveyard, has been showing more and more promise in recent years (remember the Jason Bourne franchise). Hollywood is making a big investment this year, beginning with Fox and Peter Chernin's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which hopes to reinvigorate the long-dormant franchise. When Fox recently pushed up the release of Rise from November to August -- after first moving it from June to Thanksgiving -- many in the movie business questioned the scheduling change. Fox says once it realized the special effects would be done in time, it moved Rise back to summer, saying the movie is better suited here than around Thanksgiving. (The event pic's nearest rival, Cowboys & Aliens, opens one week earlier.)

August brings two more comedies, Universal's Ryan Reynolds/Jason Bateman/Olivia Wilde starrer The Change-Up, opening Aug. 5, and Sony's comedic adventure 30 Minutes or Less, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride and Fred Ward, going out in theaters Aug. 12. The Aug. 12 and Aug. 19 weekends are jam-packed with three new titles each, including two horror movies: FilmDistrict's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a horror film written by Matthew Robbins and Guillermo Del Toro that hits theaters on Aug. 12, and a week later, DreamWorks/Disney's remake Fright Night, starring Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin. The month closes out with the fifth installment in New Line's tried and true Final Destination franchise, which opens Aug. 26. Labor Day releases include Relativity's Shark Night 3D and The Debt, a leftover title from Miramax that Focus will send out in the U.S. The drama thriller stars Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson.

August Releases

August 5

  • The Change-Up (Universal)
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox)

August 12

  • 30 Minutes or Less (Sony)
  • Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (FilmDistrict)
  • The Help (Disney/DreamWorks)

August 19

  • Conan the Barbarian (Lionsgate, 3D)
  • Fright Night (Disney/DreamWorks, 3D)
  • Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World (Weinstein Co., 3D)

August 26

  • Final Destination 5 (Warners/New Line)

Aug. 12: The Help
DreamWorks' adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel The Help is one of the summer's few dramas targeting women (Larry Crowne is billed both as a drama and comedy). The Help, directed by Stockett's longtime friend Tate Taylor, stars Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and Mike Vogel. Set in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, The Help follows a young white journalist as she helps write an expose on the African-American maids working in white households.

Aug. 19: Spy Kids 4
Just like Lionsgate, the Weinstein Co.'s Dimension Films is waiting until August to bow its summer event film, Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World. The stakes are high for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who are hoping to revive the lucrative action-adventure family franchise. It's been eight years since the previous film, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. The Weinstein brothers made the first three films when they were still running Miramax, then a part of the Disney family. Robert Rodriguez, who directed the first three installments, returns to helm Spy Kids 4, which stars Rowan Blanchard, Mason Cook, Jessica Alba, Joel McHale and Jeremy Piven. Combined, the kids franchise has grossed north of $460 million worldwide. Spy Kids 4, for which Rodriquez also penned the script, has strong potential overseas, considering the appetite for 3D family pics at the foreign box office. Domestically, the film has little competition, although kids will be starting to go back to school by the end of the month.

Aug. 19: Conan vs. Fright Night
Conan the Barbarian, previously titled Conan 3D, is Lionsgate's sole summer event pic. The mini-major is hoping to relaunch the sword-and-sorcery franchise made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new Conan puts Jason Momoa in the lead role and also stars Rose McGowan, Stephen Lang and Ron Perlman. Lionsgate is already aggressively marketing the film, produced by Avi Lerner's Nu Image/Millennium Films, which picked up the movie rights to the Conan brand when Warner Bros. put the project into turnaround. August always has been a popular time for genre franchises like this one. This year is more competitive than ever, with a pending showdown coming from Conan, Fright Night and Final Destination 5. Conan and Fright Night open opposite each other on Aug. 19, while Final Destination 5 hits theaters a week later. Conan has an advantage in being a purely male-driven franchise. Lionsgate is already marketing the pic in an effort to reintroduce audiences to the franchise. The first Conan film debuted in 1982, becoming a cult hit. The sequel, Conan the Destroyer, came out in 1984 but wasn't as popular. A threequel was scrubbed when Schwarzenegger left the franchise for other projects.

Indies to Watch

  • Bellflower (Aug. 5, Oscilloscope Pictures)
  • Dirty Girl (Aug. 5, the Weinstein Co.)
  • Higher Ground (Aug. 12, Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Circumstance (Aug. 19, Roadside Attractions)
  • Our Idiot Brother (Aug. 26, the Weinstein Co.)
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