Summer sequels, new tentpoles on horizon


We've had the Year of the Slump (2005) and the Year of the Comeback (2006). Now get ready for the Year of the Sequel.

At least a dozen sequels to widely popular films -- ranging from two- to five-time repeats -- will descend on the international market this year, with the largest number battling for recognition during the busy summer months.

The new titles with a familiar ring -- enhanced by new tentpoles "Transformers" (Paramount/DreamWorks), "The Simpsons Movie" (20th Century Fox) and "Ratatouille" (the Walt Disney Co./Pixar) as well as a batch of multigenre wannabes -- have overseas distribution executives gushing about a record summer for the industry or for their own companies.

"I've never seen so many expensive high-profile films in one summer," said Mark Zucker, distribution president at Sony Pictures Releasing International. "I expect it to be the biggest summer ever for the industry."

The sequel explosion starts in May with the return of two of the hottest franchises in industry history: Sony's "Spider-Man" and Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean." The previous "Spider-Man" entries have grossed $417.9 million and $410.5 million, respectively, in the foreign market, while "Pirates" has looted $355 million and $643 million.

"Spider-Man 3" is set to take off the weekend of May 4 in a massive day-and-date release throughout the world, and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" follows with a three-day global blast starting May 23.

In July, theaters worldwide will embrace the fifth in a series of Harry Potter money-gushers, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which aims to equal or beat the more than $600 million apiece grossed overseas by three predecessors (a fourth clocked in at $554.2 million). The eagerly awaited latest film adaptation of the J.K. Rowling novels will open in many key foreign countries on the same July 13 weekend it opens domestically and will extend to early August in others.

Warners' second prime summer offering is "Ocean's Thirteen," the third edition of the crime caper series directed by Steven Soderbergh, which takes off in key foreign territories June 8 simultaneous with its domestic bow.

"It'll be a very congested summer and the biggest summer ever," said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, president of international distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures. She noted, however, that despite the congestion, not all the summer releases are saturation bookings, and "there's some wiggle room (for setting dates) in some markets."

Paul Hanneman and Tomas Jegeus, 20th Century Fox's co-international presidents, will be steering several sequel-related films of different recognition values through the summer sweepstakes, starting with "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," which launches in June and goes through August. "Live Free or Die Hard," the fourth time around for the action-adventure famously identified with Bruce Willis, hits overseas multiplexes day-and-date in late June, marking the first "Die Hard" film since 1995. "28 Weeks Later," a follow-up to 2002's sci-fi thriller "28 Days Later," is slated for some markets in May.

Fox's event-focused summer offering is "Simpsons Movie," the first film adaptation of the venerable animated TV sitcom scheduled to encompass the international market in a day-and-date blast starting July 27.

" 'The Simpsons' is a global event," said Hanneman, also chorusing "the best summer ever" for the industry. "Our competitors recognize what a big property this is, so we have a good window (for the release of the film)."

Feature animation films, once the exclusive domain of Disney, have become a staple of the summer-release season, with all the major studios vying for a piece of the family trade during the school vacation period.

Paramount Pictures International, making its first summer stand as a stand-alone overseas distributor, will be represented by DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third."

"Our release dates largely follow the very successful timing from the last film (2004's 'Shrek 2')," said PPI president Andrew Cripps, who sees this year shaping up as a record international summer for the industry and for Paramount. "Russia and parts of Southeast Asia go in May, given earlier holidays and piracy concerns, but the bulk of our dates are in mid- to late June to capitalize on the period leading to school holidays."

Buena Vista International, Disney's foreign distribution arm, is counting on Disney-Pixar's newly minted "Ratatouille" to retain its laurels as animation's foremost purveyor, noting that BVI's Pixar releases have generated more than $2 billion to date in the international market. "Ratatouille," about a rat in a Paris bistro who wants to be a chef, starts out in Latin America and Asia in June and July, moves to Europe from August to September and winds up in the U.K. in October.

"We have two of the biggest pictures of the summer," BVI president Anthony Marcoly said. "We are extremely well positioned with a big sequel ('Pirates') and a big fresh new (animated) idea."

After starting out with "Open Season" in September, Sony Pictures Animation will unveil its second in-house computer-animated entry, "Surf's Up," with penguins in a starring role as the inventors of surfing. "It will follow a traditional family-film release pattern, starting day-and-date in the U.S. and Russia on June 8 and open in new territories every month until the last opening in Japan in December," Zucker said. "The goal is to get a piece of school vacations," noting that when kids are available varies from country to country.

One of the most anticipated tentpoles of the summer, Paramount/DreamWorks' live-action sci-fi thriller "Transformers," has its roots in the famed animated TV series that ran from 1984-87 and in a Japanese-style animated big-screen cult version released in 1986. The Michael Bay-directed battle of the alien races, with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, goes out July 4 in the U.S. and day-and-date in more than 30 markets worldwide, Cripps said. "All of our international releases are within four weeks of the U.S. date and are timed to ensure maximum playing time in this lucrative summer season," he added.

Universal Pictures International, also debuting in the summer as a separate overseas distribution company after severing ties with Paramount in United International Pictures, will have two sequels on its summer plate: Matt Damon will play his Jason Bourne role for a third time in "The Bourne Ultimatum," and Morgan Freeman will play God again in "Evan Almighty," the sequel to 2003's "Bruce Almighty." "Ultimatum" opens day-and-date Aug. 3 in 10 countries and rolls out in August and September, while "Almighty" bows in four countries June 22 and makes its way internationally during June and July.

The horror tale "Hostel: Part II," which Lionsgate is handling domestically, will be taken around the world by SPRI during June and July, while New Line International's "Rush Hour 3" will reach the action aficionados starting in mid-August.

Currently in release overseas are "Rocky Balboa," the final round of Sylvester Stallone's six-bout film career, and Dino De Laurentiis' "Hannibal Rising," a prequel to two Hannibal Lecter films.

Among the new offerings squeezing in overseas dates in parts of the clogged summer are BVI's "Underdog" and "Meet the Robinsons"; Warners' "Nancy Drew," "Lucky You," "No Reservations" and "The Invasion"; PPI's "Disturbia"; Universal's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"; and New Line's "Hairspray."