Naysayers flummoxed by rising admissions

In a summer of highly anticipated sequels poised to break B.O. records, it was equally anticipated that at least one or more high-profile projects would come up lame, cannibalized by the competish.

But this summer, auds have solidly rallied ’round the tentpoles.

The top three movies at the domestic B.O. this year are “Spider-Man 3″ ($333.6 million), “Shrek the Third” ($299.6 million); and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” ($277 million).

If those rankings have a familiar ring, it’s because that’s the chronological order in which the summer pics were released last month.

Despite predictions that summer 2007 would mark the clash of the tentpoles, the season is actually turning out to be a very good one for the studios.

As of June 17, box office was up 7% for the year compared with 2006. And this summer is running 1% ahead of 2004, the biggest on record.

Naysayers have pointed out that each of the past three weekends has been down from 2006.

Sequels, they say, haven’t performed up to the level of their previous installments.

But even as many have lamented the glut of derivative fare, each weekend seems to have brought a new B.O. record, large or small.

Sony and Marvel Entertainment’s “Spider-Man 3″ was the biggest domestic and international opening of all time.

Paramount and DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek the Third” was the biggest toon opening ever.

Disney’s “Pirates” was the biggest extended Memorial Day weekend bow on the books.

Even pics with lower expectations have cracked the record books, albeit with some obscure feats of glory. Fox’s “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” was the biggest Father’s Day opening ever.

All told, none of the tentpoles has eaten each other alive, as Oscar hopefuls did last fall.

The caveat is that some of the season’s biggest pics are flagging behind their previous installments. None of the year’s top pics looks likely to domestically tackle the numbers their immediate forerunners did. But sequels that outperform the originals or even the second edition are usually the exception to the rule. Sure, they have dropped faster after their bows, but they have remained hits, all the more so when you factor in international returns.

Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s Thirteen” opened down from the previous two, yet after a week in release, it was running ahead of “Ocean’s Twelve.”

Non-sequels like the comedy “Knocked Up” have proven big successes, along with specialty pics like “Waitress,” “Once” and “La Vie en rose.”

But this summer is so far unlikely to force studios to rethink their strategy of throwing more and more money at sequels rather than taking bigger risks.

Perhaps it is telling, then, that two pics that haven’t worked don’t fall into the category of big-budget sequels. “Hostel: Part II,” a franchise that moved into summer from its previous pic’s winter slot, showed that the appetite for so-called “gorno” pics is not insatiable. And the nonsequel CG pic “Surf’s Up” wiped out.

What’s more, there’s what’s left: “Transformers,” “The Simpsons Movie,” “Rush Hour 3,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Hairspray.” The way things are going, one or more is poised to break some kind of record.

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