'Bourne,' 'Dog' entering crowded marketplace

Too much of a good thing at the summer box office is leaving studios in an unusual predicament.

Pictures are holding so well and there’s such a crowded pack of new entrants, so they’re having to fight fiercely to keep still-strong films booked in theaters.

The next three weekends will be brutal, beginning with the opening this weekend of “The Bourne Ultimatum” and live-action kiddie pic “Underdog,” along with several other wide releases. Heading into its second frame, “The Simpsons Movie” is expected to come in behind “Bourne.”

Title wave also points out that dire predictions made last year by such news orgs as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times that box office was dead simply never materialized. In fact, For the month, the domestic box office was up nearly 15% over July 2006, according to both Rentrak and Nielsen EDI.

As for screen space, generally, by this time in the season, the release sked for high-profile pics begins to slow down. Not so this year. Next weekend, New Line bows “Rush Hour 3,” followed by Sony’s release of raunchy laffer “Superbad” on Aug. 17. There’s also a slew of other releases dated for early August.

It wouldn’t matter if the July crop of films weren’t holding so well, but Fox’s “Live Free or Die Hard” and Disney-Pixar’s “Ratatouille” are still solid,

“Ratatouille” is losing 994 theaters this weekend for a total run count of 1,940 locations — a hit that’s hard to take as the toon continues to simmer away with auds, dropping 32% last weekend in its fifth frame for a take of $7.4 million. Losing runs could make it more difficult for Disney to cross the magical $200 million mark at the box office. Pic’s cume now stands at more than $183 million.

“Live Free,” which dropped 21% in its fifth frame for a take of $5.6 million, is losing 849 screens this weekend, leaving it with 1,422 runs. Cume is more than $127 million. “Phoenix” is losing around 844 locations for a new run count of 3,161. Newer films like “Hairspray” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” also are feeling the pinch.

“It’s a dogfight. We lost a lot of second screens for ‘Hairspray’ that we probably would have held if the marketplace wasn’t what it was,” New Line prexy of distribution David Tuckerman said.

By late June, many were bemoaning a lackluster summer box office. That’s all changed. Overall, the summer sesh is now running 8% above a year ago in terms of domestic box office receipts, and 3% above the same frame in 2004 — the best year on record.

“This is the biggest, most crowded and crazy summer I’ve ever seen. There are more pictures, and more films holding. It’s really created the perfect storm,” said Picturehouse topper Bob Berney, who opens Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s “El Cantante” in 542 theaters today, going for the Latino aud.

“The good news is that the market will indeed expand when people are happy with their moviegoing choices,” Berney said.

While early summer tentpoles “Spider-Man 3″ and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” saw steep declines, July tentpoles “Transformers” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” have held well, along with “Ratatouille” and “Die Hard.”

The run on the box office doesn’t end there. Fox’s “The Simpsons Movie” far exceeded expectations in its opening, while New Line’s “Hairspray” is showing signs of being able to cross the $100 million mark. This week, the campy musical defied naysayers by coming in at No. 2 behind “Simpsons” at the box office. “Simpsons” is playing in 3,926 locations this weekend, four more than last weekend.

If an expanded box office is the silver lining, the cloud is that films that continue to draw auds will begin to see dramatic drops in their runs beginning this weekend. There’s just no way around it given a finite number of screens.

“This will be the weekend of the bloodbath,” one studio distribution exec said.

Another distrib exec noted that normally, he’d never have to argue with an exhibitor about giving fair due to a holdover enjoying the sort of grosses that some holdovers are.

“We are all struggling because there are so many films,” Universal prexy of distribution Nikki Rocco said.

August could prove especially frustrating since the month can often be a dumping ground. Exhibs are almost always obliged to give a film a wide opening to preserve existing relationships, even if a holdover would likely make more money than a new entry.

“For the three next weekends, you are going to have four or five pictures hit the market. No matter whether they are good or bad, the exhibition community is out there trying to get everything in, hoping for one more miracle,” one distrib honcho said.

Throughout July, the top films have seen smaller drops than last summer, or even in summer 2004. For the most part, the drops have been 45% or less, indicating audience satisfaction and strong word of mouth.

Not everything has worked, of course. Among the casualties are the Weinstein Co.’s “Who’s Your Caddy” and TriStar’s Lindsay Lohan starrer “I Know Who Killed Me,” which are likely to lose a large chunk of their runs this weekend in just their second frames.

There’s nothing new about losing runs as films move into their fourth, fifth and sixth runs; it just isn’t usually an issue this time of year.

Universal opens Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” at 3,600 locations. Pic is on track to have the best opening of the franchise. “The Bourne Supremacy” opened at $52.5 million in its July 23, 2004, debut.

“Simpsons” will easily cross the $100 million mark in its second frame. The No. 3 spot could shape up to be a battle between “Chuck and Larry,” which plays 3,290 locations in its third frame, and “Underdog.” Based on the 1960s cartoon series, “Underdog” will play 3,013 locations.

Paramount bows goofball comedy “Hot Rod,” starring Andy Samberg, in 2,607 theaters, while Lionsgate opens “Bratz,” based on the popular doll line, in 1,509.

Among specialty films, Miramax debuts Jane Austen biopic “Becoming Jane,” starring Anne Hathaway, in 100 locations in key markets. ThinkFilm opens Sundance entry “The Ten” in 25 locations. “Ten” tells different stories based on the Ten Commandments; ensemble cast includes Jessica Alba, Adam Brody, Paul Rudd and Winona Ryder.

Overseas battle

On the foreign front, overall biz should stay sizzling, with “The Simpsons Movie” expected to post its second victory. This weekend will see launches in Denmark, India, Mexico and Poland.

Rivals pics aren’t standing still, with Par’s “Transformers” likely to provide the most beefy numbers among the rest of the pack. The actioner expands into Germany and Japan; first-day German biz totaled a solid $1.2 million on Wednesday.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” should remain a significant player in its fourth frame, drawing about $25 million. Pic is likely to become the 26th of all time to hit the $500 million mark in foreign grosses this weekend.

Disney’s continuing its gradual widening of “Ratatouille” with launches in Benelux, France, Spain and Taiwan. Toon’s already tapped 18 foreign markets for $62 million.

Universal’s holding back on releasing “The Bourne Ultimatum” internationally until next weekend, when it launches in eight markets including Hong Kong and Taiwan. Instead, U’s expanding two summer comedies — “Evan Almighty” moves into its first major markets by going into Brazil, Mexico, Scandinavia and the U.K.; “Knocked Up” goes into Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Other launches include “License to Wed” in Australia and Taiwan, “Live Free or Die Hard” in Brazil, “Ocean’s Thirteen” in Argentina and “Hairspray” in the Philippines, Portugal and Thailand. South Korean monster pic “D-War” made a major splash with $2.9 million in its opening day Thursday.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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