Change of season

Studios love the idea of summer in April

Hoping to bring the box office out of a slump that’s lasted more than two months, two studios hope this weekend marks an early start to Hollywood’s summer season.

Walt Disney is releasing its adaptation of cult fave “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” at 3,133 theaters, while Revolution and Sony are unspooling action sequel “XXX: State of the Union” in 3,480 venues.

Neither pic is a clear favorite to take the weekend B.O. crown — industry estimates are for both to open somewhere north of $20 million — but their combined perfs should provide a needed boost in theatrical biz. Despite several recent successful openings — “The Interpreter,” “The Amityville Horror” and “Sahara” — total ticket sales have trailed 2004’s numbers for the last nine weekends in a row.

“It’s been a little sleepy,” Revolution partner Tom Sherak said. “We’re trying to wake it up.”

The starting line for summer has been gradually creeping into spring over the last decade. While studios once waited for the Memorial Day frame to begin unloading the big summer wares, recent years have seen the first weekend in May become the de facto first week of summer.

After Paramount opened “Mean Girls” to $24.4 million on the last weekend in April last year, Sony and then Disney each decided to place one of its big guns on the same frame this year.

“It seemed like an opportunity to kickstart the summer early,” Sony distrib topper Rory Bruer said of the “XXX” dating.

“Hopefully, we’ll rewrite the book to say summer starts the last week of April,” Disney distrib prexy Chuck Viane opined.

Execs point out there’s no fundamental reason why the last week of April should be any different from the first week of May, which is where “Spider-Man” set the three-day record with its $115 million bow in 2002. With kids still in school, late April and early May is not a big vacation time.

In recent years, total biz during the last April frame has been steadily rising — from $61.5 million in 1999 to $86 million in 2002 to $103 million in 2004.

But the question of whether some weekends on the calendar are better than others has always been a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Do good weekends make for big movies? Or do big movies make for good weekends?

Sherak argues it’s the latter. “The truth of the matter is the right movie that spurs the public to go to the movies can go anywhere. I wish the summer could start on March 1.”

Seasonal issues aside, the matchup for this weekend seems a tricky one. Tracking on “XXX” and “Hitchhiker” shows they share the same strongest quadrant: young males.

But both studios say the pics’ respective auds don’t overlap much. Bruer said of the “XXX” core aud, “Ours is a young male, urban, action audience. There’s certainly room for both of us this weekend.”

Viane said “Hitchhiker” has a built-in core of fans of the book, which does not necessarily skew old or young, male or female. “I think we’ll broaden our audience over the course of the weekend,” he said.

In the limited arena, Lions Gate is expanding “House of D” to 304 screens.

Among the new releases are Roadside Attractions’ “Ladies in Lavender,” which starts on 22 screens; Sony Classics’ “3-Iron” on seven; and HBO/Fine Line’s “The Holy Girl” on two. “Funny Ha Ha,” from Goodbye Releasing, is opening on two screens in Gotham and Boston.

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