Box office’s wobbly legs

Tentpoles wither after record openings

Box office records are great, but this summer’s early behemoths are getting their legs knocked out from underneath them domestically. And many wonder what that portends for the rest of the packed summer slate.

“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Shrek the Third” all notched records in their opening frame. Trouble is, they also posted major drops in their second stanzas: 61% for Spidey and “Pirates” and 56% for “Shrek 3.”

Of course a record-breaking bow will be followed by a steep drop. With such wide releases, anyone who wants to see the film in its first weekend can. But there are other factors in play this summer that suggest studios may have to rethink tentpole expectations.

Significantly, repeat biz is down.

It used to be that young males in particular could be counted on for return visits. Summer biggies like the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day” had fans lining up for multiple viewings, with more friends and family in tow.

More recently, “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project” were fueled by fervent word-of-mouth.

But this summer’s tentpoles don’t seem to be sustaining their “must-see” vibe.

Negative reviews by critics may not be able to keep the devoted away on opening weekend, but lackluster notices and poor word of mouth are certainly keeping potential second-week auds sitting at home.

So, too, is the cost of an evening at the movies. Increasingly, both young males and families may simply be skipping the plexes and waiting for DVD on all but a few high-profile releases. Families have made the “Shrek” series a kid staple, but the franchise’s durability is on homevid.

On a more basic level, this summer’s domestic release sked may simply be too crowded. May was packed with a trio of franchise heavyweights, and only U’s comedy counterprogrammer “Knocked Up” found much breathing room beyond the blockbusters.

And breathing room matters: Overseas, with a slightly less crowded sked, both “Pirates 3” and “Spidey 3” have shown more staying power thanks to the absence of “Shrek 3” in most markets, where it will roll out later in the summer. The combined foreign grosses for “Spider-Man 3” and “Pirates 3” were likely to top the $1 billion mark over the June 8-10 weekend.

And unlike its domestic run, where it lags behind its predecessor, “Pirates 3” has a decent shot at beating the final foreign gross of $642 million for “Pirates 2.” It was at $428 million on June 5, 11% ahead of “Dead Man’s Chest” at the same point of its international run.

Alas, the pic won’t have much breathing room. “Ocean’s Thirteen” was slated for a day-and-date bow in 25 markets over the June 8 weekend, and “Shrek the Third” was slated to expand into 14 markets.

Domestically, June has a heavyweight bow every weekend, in order: “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “Evan Almighty” and “Live Free or Die Hard” — sequels all.

At least “Transformers” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” get some breathing room in July. Apart from Disney’s “Ratatouille,” it’s a relatively tentpole-free stretch.

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