Tentpole derby has tightened up

Paramount, Fox and WB battle for boxoffice supremacy

Now we have a horse race -- a boxoffice derby, that is.

Just weeks after Fox sat atop a big lead in year-to-date domestic totals, Paramount has blown past its cross-town rival on the boxoffice strength of a comic book superhero and an adventuresome archaeologist. And despite a misfire by its car-race family film, Warner Bros. suddenly is charging hard on the derby leaders thanks to a heady weekend of "Sex."

The weekend's overachieving bow by female-magnet "Sex and the City" renewed Warners' chances at summertime glory, but a top Warners exec was unsurprised by the sudden turnaround in the studio's boxoffice prospects.

"Never had a doubt," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said Monday.

Added Fellman, who just three weeks earlier was fending off naysayers' barbs over how the sputtering debut by "Speed Racer" might ruin the studio's shot at summer success, "I have a fabulous summer ahead of me."

With another "Harry Potter" sequel set for release in November, Warners also numbers among the studios with the best chances of closing the year strongly. Yet a distributor's entire boxoffice year can hinge on how its summer tentpoles perform, with seasonal tallies representing about 40% of annual boxoffice.

Of course, it's still early in summer 2008, and all three year-to-date leaders have important films set to bow before Labor Day.

For now, Paramount rides a $163.1 million lead over No. 2 Fox, with the former boasting a 20% market share on $729.4 million in year-to-date grosses, according to Nielsen EDI. Fox's $566.3 million in year-to-date boxoffice is good for a 15.5% market share, while No. 3 Warners boasts a 13.9% share on $509 million.

Paramount's leading performance has been built chiefly on distribution success with a couple of films it doesn't own -- "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." The studio should pad its chart-topping advantage further this weekend when it unspools another such film: DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda."

"Whatever our lead, after this weekend it's going to get bigger," Par vice chairman Rob Moore said Monday. "There's no question that ('Panda') is going to continue the incredible run we we have already started this summer."

A CGI family feature, "Panda" looks likely to open somewhere north of $40 million, with Sony's Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" its only rival wide opener and targeting a similar performance on the frame. The second weekend of "Sex" could be a tad limp if its boxoffice draw proves unusually frontloaded, and Paramount's Indy sequel already has proven a one-week wonder after absorbing a big second-session drop-off in grosses (HR 6/2).

Paramount will unspool just one more film after "Panda" in the summer: "The Love Guru," a Mike Myers comedy set for June 20.

That same date, Warners -- whose market heft rose considerably when it took over distribution of New Line titles in April -- bows the Steve Carell laugher "Get Smart." And Warners' four other remaining summer openers include an almost certain hit in the Batman sequel "The Dark Knight."

Fox has a whopping seven films still to bow in the summer, but only two appear likely candidates for $100 million-plus domestic runs. Those include M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" (June 13) and "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" (July 25), though the Eddie Murphy starrer "Meet Dave" (July 11) also could have a shot.

Disney sits fourth in year-to-date market share with $377 million (10.3%), and Sony is fifth with $370.5 million (10.2%), according to EDI data.

Disney's two remaining summer releases include Pixar's "Wall-E," and Sony has "Zohan" and four other summer films still to unspool. But it's unlikely either will top year-to-date rankings by Labor Day after starting June so far back in the distribution pack.