But studios spend on 'old media' tentpoles

After two straight summers of stagnating attendance and erratic performance by the big-ticket titles, studios are itching for happy days to be here again.

The quiet hope is that this will be a record summer, and the ingredients are certainly there. But to earn those big bucks, Hollywood is playing with big stakes. Five key tentpoles have an aggregate budget of $1.3 billion (and throw in another few hundred million for worldwide marketing). A $300 million budget is within reach for some of the titles. There will be 46 wide releases — but “wide” may be too subdued a term considering the third “Pirates” movie will open worldwide on 22,000 screens.

Critics and naysayers will have a field day pointing out how few movies on the summer docket are based on original ideas. Of the 46 wide releases, a whopping 17 are sequels and remakes — but the number climbs to 25 if you count rehashed concepts or vehicles.

Aside from the highly touted “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates” bows in May, the summer includes the big-budget “Evan Almighty,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” new installments of “Harry Potter,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Die Hard,” “Rush Hour,” “Fantastic Four” and titles that are not sequels but are familiar, such as the Simpsons, Bratz and Nancy Drew.

There are also the ritual Adam Sandler comedy, the second animated movie in eight months about rats and, yes, another about penguins.

Despite — or arguably because of the familiarity — hopes are running high. Some B.O.-watchers say a $4 billion summer and $10 billion year, both records, are within reach.

Strong franchises

“If ever there was a time when 3s and 4s can work, it’s now,” says Chris Aronson, senior VP of distribution at Fox.

“These franchises are just too strong.”

Still, “the question is how much the marketplace can expand,” says Rick Sands, chief operating officer of MGM. “Frequent moviegoers are the target for these big tentpoles, but history has shown that there may be a limit. If every week is $160 million to $200 million and one title takes half of that, then what’s left over?”

If shrinks could diagnose Hollywood, they would use the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the summertime paradox. On the one hand, studios have been laying off thousands of workers, preaching austerity and coping with paranoia about the relevance of moviegoing in the digital age. On the other, they are making unprecedented investments and trying frantically to minimize risk.

As one production chief confides, “I don’t especially like tentpoles, but we need to do a couple a year, I guess.”

Last year, “Mission: Impossible’s” underwhelming performance in the season’s first weekend was a reminder that summer needs to start strong. The ’07 edition promises to do just that, with “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates” all capable of crashing through the $100 million weekend barrier. Forget the tepid Mays of recent vintage, with the likes of “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Poseidon” and “Van Helsing” starting things off with a whimper.

But a strong kickoff has its potential downside. “If the bar gets set that high in May, what will people in exhibition or in the media say when a film opens to $40 million?” wonders Jack Foley, distrib prexy at Focus Features. “In that new values system, it’ll seem like a failure.”

Another lesson from 2006 is the need to mix in some modest-priced fare, a la “The Devil Wears Prada,” the likes of which, for now, appears to be absent on the calendar. “I’m sure there are some ‘Pradas’ out there, but we just don’t know what they are yet,” says Bruce Snyder, distrib chief at Fox.

Cost-conscious genres like teen comedy and horror are well represented with everything from “Hostel 2″ to “Superbad.” What is required of the more modest entrants, says Sands, is “the recognition that you’re going to finish No. 2.” MGM just moved “Mr. Brooks,” a sub-$30 million serial-killer pic toplining Kevin Costner and Demi Moore, from a March slot to June 1. “If you’re not afraid of maneuvering around the tentpoles, it can be a good strategy,” Sands says.

With all of the moves and countermoves, finding a prime date can be rough. Even a powerhouse like “Shrek” will get only a week of playtime before “Pirates” comes ashore. “This summer’s not much of a puzzle as far as where different pieces can move,” says Paramount distrib chief Jim Tharp. On 10 weekends, three or more wide releases will battle, including the crowded June 8 frame, with “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Hostel 2″ and “Surf’s Up,” and Aug. 3 with “Bourne Ultimatum,” “Underdog” and “Charlie Bartlet.”

For the big guns and their scaled-down rivals, here are some more challenges awaiting in the warmer months ahead:

Budget bilateralism

Production costs continue to climb precipitously at the tentpole end, with “Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates 3″ and “Evan Almighty” redefining the outer limits of spending. Last year’s discussion of how far past $200 million “Superman Returns” may have gone seems quaint by comparison.

The middle ground is again considered no-man’s land.

Few studio pics fall in the $40 million to $70 million range, despite the fact that “Wedding Crashers” and “40-Year-Old Virgin” found the sweet spot in summer ’05, and “Prada” did likewise last year. Given the crowded calendar, the prevailing strategy involves assembling a fleet of cash-guzzling SUVs and thrifty little low-cost Smarts.

Marketing neuroses

Gone are the days when a marketing campaign centered on network TV buys on Thursday night. Ad spending on TV is shifting into dozens of newer outlets, especially the Web. But what is the “Friends”-esque equivalent online? It varies by pic. User-generated sites like MySpace and YouTube will continue to be studio partners.

There were lessons all over the place in 2006 for those willing to look. Below the top two performers, “Pirates 2″ and “Da Vinci,” the winners became winners through a multitude of methods. “Talladega Nights” struck product deals and rode NASCAR’s popularity. “The Break-Up” cannily used the tabloids to become a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” with less gunfire. The one puzzler was “Snakes on a Plane,” whose Web-fueled rise and fall left no blueprint to follow for this year’s summer fare.

Day and date debate

After shying away somewhat from the simultaneous release strategy last summer due to the World Cup, many of the biggest tentpoles will return to day and date.

“On May 25, we will be in every territory in the world with ‘Pirates,’ ” notes Mark Zoradi, prexy of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. “That makes sense on movies like this, but not on everything.” The one territory hard to pin down is mainland China, where censors, after viewing a print hand-delivered by Disney execs so as to avoid piracy, will deliver a verdict, and maybe not for days or weeks after the bow. “Spider-Man” is also gearing up for a comparable global saturation.

The foreign-domestic ratios continue to edge toward overseas. Last summer, “Da Vinci Code” did 71% of its business overseas after a simultaneous worldwide launch in May. Domestic misfires scored overseas: “Mission: Impossible III” and “Poseidon” each did 66% of their cumes overseas, hitting $398 million and $182 million worldwide. “Miami Vice” racked up $101 million overseas, or 62% of its global cume.

Robust specialty biz

Studio shingles and stand-alone indies, already warm to the idea of opening films in the summer, are stepping up their counterprogramming efforts. The trend, born of blockbuster fatigue and yawning demographic gaps left by studio releases, has accelerated in the past two years — think “Crash” and “March of the Penguins” in ’05, then “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Illusionist” and Al Gore last summer.

Star-studded ’07 releases like Miramax’s Austen biopic “Becoming Jane,” Par Vantage’s “A Mighty Heart” and Focus Features’ “Evening” will not only roll out, but go wide quickly from mid-June through July. The strategy is to aggressively court restless adults.

“Our audience feels neglected or even dissed in the summer, as if their money is inconsequential to the studios, so they actively search out stuff to support,” says Steven Friedlander, distrib chief at Warner Independent. “It is harder to counterprogram when there are three or four midrange titles competing each week, but much easier to get screen time and ink when each week has only one mega release, as is the case in the beginning of this summer with ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Pirates’ and ‘Shrek.’ If you are over 35 and educated, there are three weeks (out of four) with nothing for you to see.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more