'Bourne' follows 'Pirates,' 'Spidey' to trilogy gold

Before summer, the predictions were dire: Too many films, too many tentpoles and, most of all, way too many sequels.

Third installments have a tradition of ending the franchise (“Home Alone,” “RoboCop,” “Beverly Hills Cop”) and conventional thinking was that several of the summer biggies were destined to crash and burn. How many third installments, not to mention fourth and fifth renditions, could moviegoers take?

As it turns out, quite a few.

Three-quel fever is fueling a B.O. boom, with summer 2007 bronzing up as the best on record in terms of ticket sales.

New Line’s “Rush Hour 3,” which opens Friday, is the sixth tentpole in four months that’s the third edition of its series — and the other five pics have all done amazingly well.

Last weekend, Universal’s Paul Greengrass-helmed “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the third in the series, opened at $69.3 million domestically, the best August opening weekend on the books.

The trio from May — “Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Shrek the Third” — have crossed the $300 million mark domestically.

The fourth “part 3″ film to open this summer, Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s Thirteen,” had many wondering about its fate, since “Ocean’s Twelve” had done OK but stirred up some negative word of mouth from moviegoers. “Thirteen” won’t gross as much as the first two pics domestically, but it has still crossed the $100 million mark at the box office.

Most of the three-quels set opening weekend records. Sony’s “Spider-Man 3″ and Disney’s “At World’s End” dramatically raised the bar for opening weekend grosses.

“Spider-Man 3″ and “Bourne” are outperforming previous pictures worldwide, a noteworthy feat.

Domestically, “At World’s End” is lagging behind the second “Pirates” but is already the franchise’s top-grossing pic overseas.

“Shrek the Third” has easily passed the first “Shrek” both domestically and overseas, although it won’t do the same business Stateside that “Shrek 2″ did.

Overseas, the toon is still going strong and nearing the biz done by “Shrek 2.” Based on the perf of the third installment, DreamWorks Animation has already announced plans for a fifth “Shrek.”

Apart from trilogies, 20th Century Fox has enjoyed eye-popping success with Bruce Willis starrer “Live Free or Die Hard,” defying predictions that too much time had passed since the cop actioner was last on the bigscreen. The third pic, “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” played in 1995. “Live Free” has grossed more than $130.1 million domestically, well ahead of the first three pics.

WB’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth film in the blockbuster series, also is having no trouble finding its aud.

In other words, despite the early predictions of gloom, don’t expect studios to abandon their franchise philosophy.

“I don’t ever recall a summer having this many sequels. It is out there — I mean, way out there,” Disney prexy of distribution Chuck Viane said. “Some threes have been cursed in the past, but nobody feels cursed this summer.”

Critics, who generally deride Hollywood for its lack of originality, are even going gaga for some of the titles.

“The lesson is, if you want your sequels to work, they have to be fresh and exciting. They can’t just be retreads,” one studio distrib topper said.

Or, put another way by a creative exec: “The interpretive dips that you get with using different directors and actors that have hurt other franchises haven’t happened here.”

In the past, franchises have often lost their groove by the time the third pic comes around. “Matrix Revolutions” may have done OK at the box office, but it was considered a creative disappointment.

Among numerous other examples, the third editions of “Poltergeist” and “Jaws” became punchlines for standup comics.

Conversely, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the final film in the trilogy, was a hit, just as “X-Men: The Last Stand” wowed.

“In a world where you are always getting clobbered, something that has equity built into the title is worth a great deal,” one studio exec said. “We are in a moment in history when every studio wants that equity, and we’re finding it.”

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