How Studios Need Summer to Shake the 2011 Slump

Summer lined with franchise titles and sequels should help offset early malaise.

Ah, the good old days. a year ago, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland opened to $116 million, a stunning number for the first weekend in March.

Today, Alice is a faint memory as Hollywood faces one of the worst downturns in years at the domestic box office. Year-to-date, revenue is the lowest since 2007 and down 21.4 percent from 2010. So far, not one 2011 release has jumped the $100 million mark domestically.

But there’s hope. Studio executives and independent distributors agree that an especially strong summer should reverse the winter downturn and restore balance to the box office. Between now and May 6, the official start of the summer season, there are a handful of titles that could help narrow the gap — but not close it — including two toons, Universal’s Hop (April 1) and Fox’s Rio (April 15), as well as Universal’s Fast Five action sequel (April 29).

Then the scenario changes dramatically, with a slew of heavyweight franchise titles and spinoffs.

“Starting the first week of May, and all the way through the end of August, there is a pure and logical favorite for every weekend that I believe will put the business back on track,” says Disney president of worldwide distribution Chuck Viane.

May boasts three franchise titles with mega earning potential: Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20), Warner Bros.’ The Hangover Part II and DreamWorks Animation/Paramount’s Kung Fu Panda 2 (both May 27).

On Stranger Tides is the first Pirates movie to be released in 3D, greatly upping its earning potential. Ditto Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which Paramount opens July 1, and Warners’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which unspools July 15.

Other prominent franchise summer entries include X-Men: First Class (Fox, June 10) and Cars 2 (Pixar/Disney, June 24). Paramount and Marvel open Thor on May 6, while Captain America opens July 22.