May '07 success may be problem this May


May mega-hits: In Hollywood the flipside of success is the inevitable comparison it prompts one year later, which may pose problems for films opening this May.

Unfortunately, last May produced three of the year's four biggest grossing movies and it's going to be difficult if not impossible for this year's May releases to outperform them. It was a very merry May '07 thanks to three third episode franchise megahits. Sony and Marvel Enterprises' "Spider-Man 3" opened May 4 to $151.1 million and wound up as the year's biggest-grossing domestic film with $336.5 million. DreamWorks Animation and Paramount's "Shrek the Third" kicked off May 18 to $121.6 million and went on to become the year's second biggest domestic title with $321 million. And Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer Films' "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" arrived May 25 to $139.8 million, ranking fourth for the year with $309.4 million domestically.

Among them, those three boxoffice giants opened to $412.5 million and ultimately generated domestic grosses of $966.9 million. It goes without saying that May 2007's going to be a tough act to follow and it's hard to expect comparisons not to favor last year. Hollywood, however, makes it a habit to compare current grosses to last year's comparable period and so do the consumer media that follow the movie business as if they're covering a horse race.

The consumer press likes making boxoffice comparisons because it's an easy way to report on something that's actually quite complicated and deserves careful analysis. Because the product mix varies every year -- e.g., three megafranchise third installments last May versus this May's mix of originals and franchises -- such comparisons can be less than valid. Nonetheless, when numbers are down from the prior year they trigger the kind of doom and gloom stories the media love to clobber Hollywood with. Worse yet, when studios start reading these accounts of how business is "falling off" versus last year their knee-jerk reaction is to cut marketing budgets, which if anything is likely to ensure that they sell even fewer tickets.

This May will actually see a potentially strong field of contenders go into theaters, but there are some important differences between this group and last year's boxoffice high rollers. Here's a quick rundown of what happened last May and what's happening this time around:

WEEK ONE: Last May 4 Sony had the marketplace virtually to itself when it launched "Spider-Man 3" to $151.1 million, averaging $35,540 at 4,252 theaters. The picture did $59.8 million Friday, $51.3 million Saturday and $39.9 million Sunday. Those are enviable daily numbers -- for a nonholiday weekend, yet! -- and even last May's two other huge franchise openings didn't match them.

"Spider-Man 3" benefited, of course, from being the third installment in one of the most successful franchises in movie history. The series' original grossed $403.7 million in 2002 while the second episode did $373.6 million in 2004. Although Spidey's $151.1 million opening was the franchise's biggest, it ranked third in the series in terms of its domestic cume of $336.5 million. Spider-Man, of course, is one of Marvel's highest-profile superheroes. Moreover, the franchise's appeal is considerably broader than is usually the case with comic book action fantasies because of the central relationship between Toby Maguire as Spider-Man/Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. That core romance with all its entanglements helped give the franchise four-quadrants demographic appeal from the get-go.

The only other wide opening this weekend last year was Warner Bros.' romantic comedy drama "Lucky You." Because its release had been scheduled and rescheduled for so long, there were no real expectations for it to perform when it finally arrived in theaters. Not surprisingly, it took nothing away from "Spider-Man 3" and finished sixth with just $2.7 million.

This year's presummer season kicks off May 2 with Paramount and Marvel Enterprises' comic book based action adventure fantasy "Iron Man," directed by Jon Favreau ("Elf") and starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges. The film revolves around the adventures of billionaire industrialist-inventor Tony Stark (Downey) who's kidnapped but escapes after creating a high-tech armor suit that enables him to protect the world as Iron Man. When the comic book was launched in 1963 Iron Man was an anti-communist hero battling America's Vietnamese enemies. Over the years, Iron Man's exploits and enemies have been fine tuned to reflect changing times and it's clear from the film's action-packed trailer that this is a very contemporary movie.

"Iron" looms as a likely hit, but it's just not realistic to expect it to open to the kind of business that the much better known and solidly established "Spider-Man" franchise was able to achieve last May in its third time at bat. However, because it's an original "Iron" should be able to grow its audience as word of mouth spreads -- particularly through Paramount's promotion of it on the Internet -- and people who may not be familiar with the comic book discover the movie. If all goes well, Paramount and Marvel will have created a brand new franchise and that can impact at the boxoffice for years to come.

The first weekend in May should also benefit from the wide release of Sony's romantic comedy "Made of Honor," directed by Paul Weiland ("City Slickers II") and starring Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan. This is a much stronger magnet for female moviegoers than "Lucky You" was last May. It's a tale about a woman who's getting married and asks her best male friend to be her Maid of Honor. He agrees, but only because he hopes to win her over for himself. With "Iron's" strongest appeal being to males -- unlike "Spider-Man 3's" broader appeal to females as well as males -- "Made's" female appeal makes it excellent counterprogramming.

Nonetheless, it's going to be tough to outperform this weekend last year when key films -- those doing at least $500,000 for the three days -- took in $183.8 million. That, by the way, was a 74% increase over the same weekend in May 2006 when "Mission: Impossible III" topped the chart with $47.7 million and key films grossed $105.5 million.

WEEKEND TWO: Last year's second weekend in May was dominated by "Spider-Man 3," which fell 62% and grossed $58.2 million. Its daily grosses that weekend may have been down from its opening stanza, but they were still the size of what many films hope to gross for a three-day period. Spidey did $17.2 million Friday, $25.2 million Saturday and $15.6 million Sunday. Its cume after 10 days was already $240.2 million.

Everyone stayed out of Spidey's way in weekend two. There were three other openings, but they were all lower-profile pictures and none of them did big business. Fox Searchlight's thriller sequel "28 Days Later" opened in second place to $9.8 million. Universal's romantic comedy "Georgia Rule" opened third to $6.8 million despite starring Lindsay Lohan (along with Jane Fonda and Felicity Huffman). And Lionsgate's action comedy "Delta Farce" finished fifth with $3.4 million.

This year's second weekend in May will bring some major competition for "Iron." To begin with there's Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's action adventure "Speed Racer" from "Matrix" franchise directors Larry and Andy Wachowski and megaproducer Joel Silver. "Racer," which is targeted to the same male audience as "Iron," is a major contender that should have a big boxoffice impact. The Wachowskis are a solid brand name now and Warners will be promoting "Racer" on the Internet to their core audience of "Matrix" fans.

The weekend should also get a big shot in the arm from Fox's release of its romantic comedy "What Happens in Vegas," directed by Tom Vaughan and starring Cameron Diaz, Aston Kutcher and Queen Latifah. There's already a great buzz circulating about "Vegas" and insiders expect it to be very commercial. Its story revolves around two people who wake up married after a wild, wild night in Vegas during which one of them won a jackpot by playing the other's quarter! While trying to get their hands on the money for themselves, they wind up -- surprise! -- falling in love. The film's appeal should be broad enough to satisfy not just women, but the men they'll be dragging along to see it.

If "Racer" and "Vegas" do the strong opening weekend business that seems likely and if "Iron" holds up decently in the face of competition from "Racer," the second weekend in May can outperform last year's second weekend when key films grossed $100.6 million (up 6% from $95.2 million in May '06 when "MI 3" was first with $25 million).

WEEKEND THREE: Last May's third weekend saw DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" arrive via Paramount to $121.6 million, averaging $29,507 at 4,122 theaters. Here, too, there were outstanding daily grosses -- $38.4 million Friday, $47.1 million Saturday and $36.1 million Sunday.

With no other wide openings this weekend it was clear that Hollywood knew "Shrek 3" was going to rule the boxoffice. The weekend's only other significant ticket sales went to "Spider-Man 3" in its third weekend with $29 million, a drop of 50%. Its cume, however, was a sizzling $282.4 million for 17 days.

Driven by "Shrek 3" and "Spidey 3," the third weekend in May '07 saw key films gross $175.5 million, up 12% from $157.3 million a year earlier when the adult appeal drama "The Da Vinci Code" was No. 1 with $77.1 million.

Weekend three this May will see Disney and Walden Media open "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," the second episode in the franchise that began with 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." "Wardrobe" opened Dec. 9, 2005 to $65.6 million at 3,616 theaters ($18,129 per theater) and went on to gross $291.7 million domestically. "Caspian" stands to open to bigger business given its presummer arrival when moviegoing typically expands.

Whether "Caspian" can equal "Shrek 3's" business, however, is another matter. As an animated feature, "Shrek the Third's" great advantage was that it could play well to young children on the most basic level but, at the same time, it also could play to their parents and even to teenagers or adults without children who were already familiar with the franchise's adult friendly humor.

The only new wide release going up against it will be Lionsgate's R rated horror film "Midnight Meat Train," but "Caspian" will also be sharing the marketplace with "Racer's" second weekend and "Iron's" third.

WEEKEND FOUR: Last May's fourth weekend was the Memorial Day holiday weekend when Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer Films' "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" sailed into theaters with $153 million in ticket sales for four days (including approximately $13.2 million in previews). It was playing in 4,362 theaters and averaged $32,050. On a daily basis "World's End" took in $42.9 million Friday, $37.7 million Saturday, $34.1 million Sunday and $25.1 million Monday. Here, too, these daily grosses are the equivalent of what would be a great three day weekend gross for most films.

Not surprisingly, no other wide releases ventured into the Memorial Day weekend boxoffice waters. Between them, however, the "Shrek" and "Spider-Man" episodes sold $85.1 million in tickets -- $67 million for "Shrek the Third," whose cume hit $217.3 million for 11 days, and $18.1 million for
"Spider-Man 3," whose cume reached $307.8 million for 25 days.

Propelled by "Pirates 3" and "Shrek 3" last May's fourth weekend saw key films gross $248.3 million, up 6% from $235.1 million a year earlier when "X-Men: The Last Stand" opened in first place to $122.9 million for four days.

This Memorial Day weekend is off and running Thursday, May 22 with "Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" from Paramount, Lucasfilm and Amblin Entertainment. Reteaming director Steven Spielberg and series star Harrison Ford, the franchise's fourth episode is produced by Frank Marshall (who produced "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and was an executive producer of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade") and executive produced by George Lucas (an executive producer of the first three episodes) and Kathleen Kennedy (associate producer of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom").

"Indy 4" is arguably the year's most anticipated release. Although it's been nearly 20 years since 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the legendary franchise is well-known to younger moviegoers thanks to DVD and cable TV airings. Moreover, Paramount's massive Internet marketing effort has already put "Indy 4's" trailer in front of millions of young eyeballs that these days are glued to the Web rather than to television screens.

The movie's potential to play to a very broad audience -- adults who fondly remember seeing the first three episodes in their youth plus under-25s who've watched them all on DVD and are now learning about the new episode via the Internet -- should give it a solid shot at matching or, perhaps, even exceeding the level of business achieved last May by "Pirates 3." Additionally, "Indy 4" will benefit from the event status that the Spielberg-Lucas collaboration has going into the marketplace.

As you'd expect, no other wide releases are going head to head with "Indy 4" so its only competition will come from "Caspian's" second weekend, "Racer's" third weekend and "Iron's" fourth weekend.

WEEKEND FIVE: This year's calendar is slightly different from last year's in that May includes two-thirds of a fifth weekend -- Fri., May 30 and Sat., May 31 -- that concludes with Sun., June 1. Last year there were only four weeks in May and the weekend that corresponds to this year's weekend five was the first weekend in June (June 1-3). As a result, comparisons to last May can't really include this weekend.

On the other hand, it's a safe bet that this May is going to end with a bang. There should be some very sexy grosses when New Line unveils its feature version of "Sex and the City" on May 30. Although it's an original, "Sex" has great brand name status after all its years of exposure on HBO followed by cable TV reruns. It's exactly the sort of film that women will drag their husbands and boyfriends to see and if the movie's anything like the series it should generate a great buzz and play well into the summer.

May 30's only other wide opening is Rogue Pictures' R rated horror thriller "The Strangers." Clearly, "Sex" and violence won't be competing for the same audience.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 26, 1990's column: "Of 1990's boxoffice trends, one of the most significant is the downward direction taken by sequels. Of the year's top 10 grossing films, only two were sequels -- 'Die Hard 2,' which was seventh, and 'Back to the Future, Part III,' which just made it in 10th place.

"Sequels fared far better in 1989's top 10 with 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' coming in second, 'Lethal Weapon 2' placing fourth and 'Ghostbusters II' finishing sixth...

"The pattern that's emerged at the boxoffice this past year suggests audiences are now more likely to be repelled than attracted by sequels. The films moviegoers spent big money on in 1990 were mostly originals -- like 'Ghost,' 'Pretty Woman,' 'Home Alone,' 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' 'The Hunt for Red October,' 'Total Recall,' 'Driving Miss Daisy' and 'Dick Tracy.'

"What changed the public's mind about sequels? Anyone who's seen a few recent sequels knows the answer. By and large, Hollywood has been grinding out sequels without much regard for whether their stories were nearly as good as the stories that attracted moviegoers to the originals.

"Sequels get made because it's easy to make the deals to make them. Given the originals' success, the high awareness moviegoers have of their brand-name titles and the willingness of filmmakers to work for significantly more money than they were paid to make the originals, it's understandable that Hollywood has been having a love affair with sequels.

"From the public's perspective, however, the bigger the number after a film's title, the more likely that sequel is to be an unsatisfying boxoffice ripoff. With tough economic times already a reality and with the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf increasingly likely, moviegoers will continue to favor escapist entertainment. In such times action sequels are an especially high risk bet since television news will be feeding people a steady diet at no cost of all the real violence and action anyone could possibly want to see."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel