$300 million club propels record summer

For better or for worse, the record-breaking run at the summer box office has dramatically raised the bar for just how high Hollywood can fly.

For the first time ever, four summer films have broken the $300 million barrier at the domestic box office: “Spider-Man 3″ ($336.4 million), “Shrek the Third” ($321 million), “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” ($307.6 million) and “Transformers” ($303.7 million), according to Rentrak.

Including these four biggies, a total of 13 summer titles have shot past the $100 million mark in a surprise surge.

Boom means summer 2007 is turning out to be the best on the books, running 10% ahead of 2006 and 6% ahead of 2004, the previous record-holder, according to Nielsen EDI. The total number of summer admissions (May 4-Aug. 12) is 526.5 million, up 6% over the same frame last summer.

All of this is helping to boost year-to-date numbers at the box office, with 2007 running 7% over 2006 and 6% over 2004, the previous record-holder.

What’s more, the bonanza got off to a late start, leaving studio execs looking at late July and August with new gusto.

Foreign fireworks

The summer has also been singular on the foreign front as four films topped the $400 million barrier — the third “Pirates” pic with $650 million, “Spider-Man 3″ and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” with $550 million each and “Shrek the Third” with $412 million. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” is the fourth highest grosser of all time.

Only 23 films had previously reached the $400 million milestone previously, including four from 2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “Casino Royale.” The latter two didn’t open in the summer, however.

“Order of the Phoenix” could go all the way to $600 million and “Transformers,” now at $337 million, could get to $400 million by the end of its run.

“The Simpsons Movie” is at $230 million overseas and should get to well over $300 million. “Live Free or Die Hard” has hit $204 million and should make it to $250 million. “Ocean’s Thirteen” has hit $170 million.

What it all means

Veteran B.O. watchers say this summer’s success confirms the theory that the theatrical marketplace is capable of expanding, despite the doom and gloom of those who say that people don’t much care to go to theaters anymore.

“It’s proved that when you offer people great stories that also deliver state-of-the-art effects and stunts, they want to go out and experience it together. It becomes an event,” said DreamWorks CEO/co-chair Stacey Snider, whose studio and Paramount turned out “Transformers.”

But just as box office receipts are up, so are production budgets for behemoth franchise entries like “Spider-Man 3″ and the third “Pirates” pic. Sony says “Spider 3″ cost around $260 million to produce, and that doesn’t include marketing costs.

Plenty of more moderately budgeted pics are also helping to drive the summer box office, however, providing consolation for those studios foregoing the bigger tentpoles.

Oddly, there are any number of films grossing in the $50 million and $60 million range domestically. Not this year. Either pictures worked, or they didn’t. This summer, only one title fell there: Sony’s “Surf’s Up” ($58.4 million).

In summer 2004, studios congratulated themselves when, for the first time, a film, “Shrek 2,” crossed the $400 million mark at the domestic box office, while “Spider-Man 2″ crossed $300 million. “The Day After Tomorrow,” crossed $200 million, and another seven films made more than $100 million.

As in 2004, 10 films passed the $100 million mark last summer, with only one of those, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” grossing more than $300 million and three taking more than $200 million.

Only nine pics grossed north of $100 million in summer 2005, including “Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith,” which grossed $378.5 million, and two films grossing more than $200 million.

“Order of the Phoenix” jumped the $200 million mark this summer, grossing $273.6 million at the domestic box office to date. With a cume of $194.1 million, toon “Ratatouille” is on the verge of joining “Potter” in crossing the $200 million milestone.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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