Hollywood dances to a summer record

Superheated sequels set the pace as the film industry saw boxoffice and moviegoers applaud the familiar

Like carnival barkers whipping the crowd into a frenzy in order to lure them into the big top, Hollywood pulled out all the superlatives this summer.

See the amazing "Spider-Man 3" swinging from multiplex to multiplex! It grossed a colossal $151.1 million in its first three days, the biggest opening weekend of all time! Behold the mighty "Transformers"! Its opening Tuesday gross of $27.9 million was the biggest Tuesday in boxoffice history — ever! Marvel at frenetic "The Bourne Ultimatum"! With $69.3 million, it scored the biggest August opening in the history of the known universe!

What a difference a couple of years make. Two years ago, amid a prolonged boxoffice slump — at least compared with the previous, more bullish year — naysayers were predicting the end of the theatrical motion picture experience. Moviegoers were said to be abandoning the multiplex in droves and parking themselves in front of their home entertainment centers.

Last summer, the tide began to shift back. Seduced by popular entertainment, moviegoers headed back to the theaters. And that movement only accelerated this summer.

Now that the summer season — which began May 4, the first Friday in May — has officially ended with the close of the Labor Day weekend, Hollywood is basking in the warmth of a new summer boxoffice record.

For the 18 weeks of summer, the North American boxoffice totaled $4.33 billion, as tracked by The Hollywood Reporter. To be sure, the tracking services report slightly different totals. According to Media By Numbers, the summer hit the $4.18 billion mark. Nielsen EDI reports a summer boxoffice haul of $4.16 billion. THR's numbers show a slightly higher total because in addition to charting boxoffice for all studio and indie films in theatrical release, it also includes ticket revenue from such other sorces as ethnic film venues and museums.

But all the numbers point in the same direction — upward. As calculated by THR, this summer's total of $4.33 billion is up more than 11% compared with last summer's $3.896 billion.

Admissions, though, tell a slightly different story. Ticket-price inflation partly accounts for the rise in this summer's boxoffice. Factor that out, and admissions for the current season numbered 632.2 million, still an improvement compared with 2006's 593.9 million, but a more modest increase of 6%.

For while Hollywood might have set a boxoffice record this summer in terms of dollars, 2002 still holds the record for the number of summer admissions — 668.1 million.

Individual films might have set plenty of records this summer, but they didn't entirely rewrite the record books.

Last summer, for example, one film, Walt Disney Studios' "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," topped the $400 million mark, grossing $414.2 million by summer's end. Along the way, it established such records as biggest July weekend ($136 million), biggest opening week ($196 million) and biggest 10-day gross ($258.4 million). None of this summer's movies challenged those stats.

But while none of this summer's movies proved as big as "Dead Man's Chest," what was different this time is that the top five movies — four of which grossed more than $300 million — all grossed more than the second-best-grossing movie last summer.

Last year, the $242 million grossed by Disney's "Cars," from Pixar Animation Studios, was good enough to earn that movie second place.

By comparison, this summer, the top five were a lot more flush. Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 3" reigned with $336.5 million; Paramount Pictures' release of DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" rode to $320.7 million; "Transformers," a DreamWorks/ Paramount co-production, motored to $310.6 million; Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" sailed off to $308.7 million; and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" conjured $286.6 million.

In a certain sense, the audience behaved like ravenous locusts, descending each weekend on the designated boxoffice hit and showering it with dollars.

Opening weekends often exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Big things were expected of the three May power-sequels — "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and the last movie in the "Pirates" trilogy, "At World's End." Competitors, by and large, ceded them the field. And even if none of the May trifecta outgrossed the biggest-grossing films in their respective franchises, all delivered — both domestically and internationally.

The biggest movies saturated theaters from coast to coast. "At World's End," opening in 4,362 theaters, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," bowing in 4,285 theaters, and "Spider-Man 3," launching in 4,252 theaters, became the widest openings of all time.

Of course, big opening weekends also led in turn to sometimes stiff second-weekend drop-offs. The average drop for wide releases in 2007 was 51%, compared with 2006's 48%.

In the immediate wake of the May blowout, business slowed a bit in June but rallied in July and powered through August as subsequent films continued to open to numbers that even the most optimistic of prognosticators hadn't quite anticipated. 20th Century Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" corralled the TV series' long-running fan base and bowed to $74 million. Universal's globe-trotting spy saga "The Bourne Ultimatum," which jazzed critics and moviegoers, commanded $69.3 million on its way to a summer haul of $202.8 million.

Critics might have turned up their noses at the onslaught of sequels — with only occasional exceptions like "Ultimatum" — but audiences weren't so picky. Ten of the top 20 films were sequels. Last summer, only five movies in the top 20 were direct or quasi-sequels.

A handful of this summer's sequels failed to perform: "28 Weeks Later" ($28.6 million) was no "28 Days Later" ($45.1 million). "Hostel: Part II" ($17.6 million) didn't equal the original "Hostel" ($47.3 million) and suggested that audiences, at least temporarily, have lost their taste for blood — though then along came Rob Zombie's remake of 1978's "Halloween" over Labor Day weekend, and blood-lust appeared back in style as the movie opened to $30.6 million. And "Daddy Day Camp" ($11.9 million), which paled compared with "Daddy Day Care" ($104.3 million), certainly means Cuba Gooding Jr. won't be stepping into any other of Eddie Murphy's castoff roles.

Audience preference for the familiar also was reinforced by three more movies in the top 20 that relied on well-established brand names. "Transformers," based on the popular Hasbro toy line, dominated the Fourth of July weekend as it powered its way to $310.6 million. "The Simpsons Movie," with a final summer gross of $178.5 million, proved the enduring popularity of Homer and his clan. And "Hairspray," a movie adaptation of the 2002 Broadway musical which in turn was based on the 1988 John Waters comedy, danced to $112.4 million — in the process, it even managed to supplant the Oscar-winning "Dreamgirls" ($103.4 million) as the top-grossing musical since 2002's "Chicago" ($170.7 million).

Among the high-priced tentpole pictures, there were no bellyflops as resounding as last summer's "Poseidon" ($60.7 million) or "Lady in the Water" (which grossed slightly less than $42 million by summer's end.) But "Evan Almighty," in which God (Morgan Freeman) calls upon Steve Carell to play a modern-day Noah, faced rough seas. The film, which Universal Pictures officially pegged at $175 million, ended the summer just below the $100 million mark.

All animated movies weren't created equal, either. DWA's "Shrek the Third" towered above the pack with $320.7 million. And Pixar Animation Studios' "Ratatouille," which collected some of the best reviews of the summer, crossed the $200 million mark to score $201.2 million. But Sony Pictures Animation ran into resistance with its second project, "Surf's Up," the tale of surfing penguins, which following the documentary "March of the Penguins" and the animated "Happy Feet" just might have been one penguin movie too many. It ended the summer with just $58.9 million.

Given that the biggest summer movies were designed to reach the widest possible audiences, PG-13 ratings dominated the top 20 films, where 12 movies carried that designation. "Live Free or Die Hard," the fourth installment in the previously R-rated franchise, was specifically designed to earn a less restrictive PG-13.

One movie, the animated "Ratatouille" was rated G, while four were PG: "Shrek the Third," "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," "Hairspray" and "Surf's Up."

Only two movies in the top 20 were rated R, but they both came from the Judd Apatow comedy combine, which is in the ascendant. "Knocked Up," the comedy about an unexpected pregnancy, which Apatow directed, held on throughout the summer until it reached $148.2 million, while the teen sex comedy "Superbad," which Apatow produced, burst out of the gate in August and has grossed $92.7 million to date as it heads toward $100 million.

While "Knocked Up" and "Hairspray" attracted lots of female fans, summer 2007 did not see a big, all-embracing hit that was aimed predominantly at older female moviegoers — older, in Hollywood parlance, being women over 25 — unless they were moms accompanying their younger kids to some of the family-oriented fare.

This summer, there was no "Devil Wears Prada" that women could call their own. Such romantic comedies as "No Reservations" or the late-summer "Prada" knockoff "The Nanny Diaries" never established any real traction. One of the few that bucked the odds was "Waitress," which turned into a modest indie hit as word-of-mouth propelled it to $18.9 million.

This summer didn't witness any runaway indie breakouts along the lines of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "Fahrenheit 9/11," though. Arguably, the top-grossing indie movie was the PG-13 horror film "1408," produced by the indie Weinstein Co. and released through MGM, which at the moment stands somewhere between the majors and the indies. "1408" scared up $71.5 million, though that figure ultimately could be eclipsed by "Halloween," from the Weinstein Co.'s Dimension label and also released through MGM, which grabbed a record-settting opening four-day gross of $30.6 million during the Labor Day weekend.

As for the studios, Paramount Pictures earned top market-share honors, though the Melrose Avenue studio reached that pinnacle because of the contributions from DreamWorks, which exists, sometimes uneasily, within the new Paramount framework. The combined power of "Shrek the Third," from the publicly held DWA, and "Transformers," a DreamWorks/Paramount co-production that had been in development even before Paramount acquired DreamWorks in 2005, fueled the studio's surge to the top of the heap.

Even though it weathered the disappointment of "Evan Almighty" and had just one $200 million picture, Universal ranked second in market share thanks to two $100 million-plus movies — "Knocked Up" and the Adam Sandler comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" ($116.6 million).

The Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Distribution ranked third. By combining another "Pirates" movie as well as a new offering from Pixar, it repeated the successful formula that it used last summer when its top two movies were the second "Pirates" movie and Pixar's "Cars."

Brian Fuson contributed to this report.