risky business

Tale of two summers: boxoffice, admissions

By Tuesday, when all the final numbers are crunched at the end of the Labor Day weekend, Hollywood will have celebrated the biggest summer season in its history — at least in terms of boxoffice dollars if not actual admissions.

The total North American boxoffice for the summer season that began with the release of Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 3" on the first Friday in May is on track to climb to slightly more than the $4.3 billion mark, according to estimates by The Hollywood Reporter. That would put it ahead of the record summer of 2004, when the boxoffice peaked at $4.01 billion.

Coincidentally, the summer 2004 lineup boasted "Shrek 2" and "Spider-Man 2" as well as the third "Harry Potter" film, the second "Ocean's" movie and the second "Bourne" entry. It might as well have been a dry run for this summer, which also threw the third "Pirates" movie into the mix.

Factor out ticket inflation and admissions tell a slightly different story. The Reporter estimates that summer 2007 admissions will hit about 628.5 million. That's better than the past two summers but still well below the all-time high of 668.1 million admissions in summer 2002.

Just for comparison's sake, the original "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" topped the chart that summer. But in addition to such studio hits as "Signs," "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "Men in Black II," that year also saw the outsized success of the breakout indie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which grossed $82.6 million by that year's Labor Day weekend and then continued to climb until it ended its run with $241.4 million the following April.

This summer's indie offerings didn't come close to matching the studio releases. Arguably, the biggest indie hit was MGM's release of the Weinstein Co.'s PG-13 horror film "1408," which has grossed $71.1 million. (The argument comes about because, while the Weinstein Co. belongs to the indie world, the refurbished MGM distribution apparatus sits somewhere between the studio and indie camps.) Otherwise, top indie honors would have to go to Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko" ($23.9 million), produced by the Weinstein Co. and released through Lionsgate.

As for the big studio hits this summer, you could say that they all had a date with destiny because the movies that claimed the primo release dates all rose to the top. Season opener "Spider-Man 3" took in $336.5 million; "Shrek the Third," which launched two weeks later, grabbed $321 million; "Transformers," which dominated the Fourth of July weekend, captured $308.9 million; and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," which plopped down on Memorial Day weekend, dug up $308.1 million.

None of the big three sequels took in as much money domestically as the previous highest-grossing film in each series. And that had some commentators blaming sequel fatigue.

Well, possibly. But it probably just means that a) audiences weren't entirely enraptured by those particular sequels; b) because consumers now know that the DVD is right around the corner, repeat moviegoing has taken a hit; and c) with big-ticket movies opening back-to-back, audiences weren't inclined to linger too long over any one movie.

Certainly, Universal Pictures' "The Bourne Ultimatum" didn't show any signs of sequel fatigue. Paul Greengrass' propulsive thriller not only got some of the best reviews of the summer, but it opened relatively late — on July 23 — when most of the bigger guns, with the exception of "Rush Hour 3," had come and gone. Demonstrating solid holds, it has grossed more than $188 million, becoming the top-grossing movie in the "Bourne" trilogy and proving that quality should never be discounted.