Exhib dilemma: How to top boffo '07?

The problem with Hollywood’s snowballing box office success is that all records are made to be broken.

So with 2007 high-performers “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” each promising as much as $900 million in worldwide grosses, the challenge on the horizon for the six major studios is: That’s great, but what can you do for an encore?

At first glance, studios face a daunting task to match — much less exceed — 2007 performance levels, which built on early hits like “Night at the Museum,” “300″ and “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” with a franchise-filled summer. Domestically, box office revenues have risen by more than 6%, while on the foreign side, they’re up a robust 20%.

But the big six studios are quietly confident that next year’s slate can deliver the goods. Rob Moore, Paramount president of marketing, distribution and worldwide operations, says he’s already been struck by how many quality tentpole pics have emerged on next year’s calendar.

“The summer of 2008 has been completely dated and looks very impressive,” Moore says. “We may not see as many films going over $300 million domestically as this year, but there are a number of high-profile films with a lot of pedigree to them. It’s a little hard to predict, but I’m pretty optimistic.”

Top of everyone’s list for 2008 are two sequels, Paramount’s long-awaited “Indiana Jones 4″ and Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

It’s been 18 years since Harrison Ford last picked up the bullwhip for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” — a long time to ask even hardcore fans to wait. Still, it’s worth noting that the first three movies grossed a combined $1.2 billion worldwide (now conservatively worth more than $2 billion in price-adjusted dollars) during a time when foreign markets weren’t anywhere near as developed as they are now.

As for the new “Narnia,” that pic taps into the enormous good will generated when “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” struck a worldwide chord two years ago and generated three-quarters of a billion dollars.

“The first ‘Narnia’ was a real sleeper hit, so the expectations will be much higher this time,” admits BVI VP David Kornblum.

Sony’s teamed with Will Smith again on “Tonight He Comes” after generating better-than-expected grosses on “Hitch” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” “Will can open any kind of film,” notes Sony Pictues Intl. Releasing topper Mark Zucker.

2008′s other summer biggies include:

  • “The Dark Knight,” Warner’s sixth Batman movie, has Christian Bale returning.

  • Fox’s remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and Eddie Murphy comedy “Starship Dave” are coming in May.

  • Warners is bringing to life a pair of well-liked TV properties, “Speed Racer” and “Get Smart,” the latter starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.

  • Paramount’s “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey Jr., is the first pic to come out of its deal with Marvel Studios. In a sign of Par’s confidence, it’s been given a choice May 2 opening date.

  • Disney/Pixar has “Wall-E,” in which a robot looks for a home in space. Given the Pixar pedigree (“Finding Nemo” took in $800 million worldwide), there’s a strong chance of a breakout. “Pixar movies have always performed well,” Kornblum notes.

  • Universal’s relying on established properties with a new version of “The Incredible Hulk,” a second “Hellboy” and a third “Mummy” movie, seven years after “The Mummy Returns.” The first two “Mummy” pics brought in nearly $900 million worldwide.

  • DreamWorks has not one but two Jack Black pics set for summer 2008, the computer-animated “Kung Fu Panda” and Ben Stiller-directed “Tropic Thunder.”

    • New Line’s going the 3-D route with a remake of 1959′s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”  

    • Will Ferrell’s in a Sony’s comedy, “Step Brothers,” out in July. That’s five months after he stars in a 1970s basketball comedy, New Line’s “Semi-Pro.”  

    And unlike 2007, with summer attracting the biggest of the big while fall remains relatively fallow, studios have opted to backload the 2008 schedule, banking as fourth-quarter releases the 23rd James Bond movie, the sixth “Harry Potter,” Paramount’s 11th “Star Trek,” U’s rebirthing of “The Wolfman,” a Par/DreamWorks “Madagascar” sequel and Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” companion “Angels and Demons” from Sony.

    That late-’08 scheduling strategy can be attributed in part to studios trying to stay out of the way of two massive summer sporting events — the European Cup soccer matches and the Beijing Olympics — that can have a huge impact on theatrical performance. Last summer, studios saw international biz slide significantly during the World Cup.

    David Kosse, topper at Universal Pictures Intl., believes that the distraction of soccer in European markets is going to put enough of a damper on overall biz to make it difficult to match 2007 — though he’s quick to add that he believes Universal’s lineup will do at least as well next year as this year.

    “I think that 2008 could match 2007,” Zucker agrees. “It’s certainly going to finish strongly.”

    Early handicapping put James Bond, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “Angels” as the most likely success stories. The trio all have the lineage of success, are instantly recognizable in any market and are set in international-type locales.

    But the anxiety doesn’t end with 2008.

    The scrambling for box office dollars is so severe that studios are already deep into 2009 planning. “With tentpoles, you really don’t have a lot of available dates, so you have to plan farther and farther out,” says Fox. Intl. VP Joe Ortiz.

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