Summer box office set to end on high note

There are five new wide releases playing over the long Labor Day weekend — more than ever before for the holiday — in a fitting end to a summer that’s been full of surprises.

Total B.O. revenues for the season should come in just behind last summer’s record-breaking haul of $4.16 billion once Labor Day weekend grosses are tallied.

No one expected summer 2008 to be so strong considering the lack of the established film franchises that populated last summer. Through Wednesday, B.O. grosses for the season were $3.99 billion vs. $4.00 billion for the same frame a year ago, according to Rentrak.

Attendance, however, will likely be down a few percentage points. The average ticket price this summer is $7.16 vs. $6.88 in 2007.

The vibrant summer box office is attributable in part to a slate of films that clicked with all sectors of the moviegoing population. The ailing economy also helped: As gas prices skyrocketed in early June, many Americans decided to stick close to home and spend their travel dollars on other entertainment. An evening at the movies is still cheaper than sporting events or theme parks.

It’s long been said “that Hollywood can’t come up with fresh, good, satisfying and innovative product, and I think one of the truths of this summer is that Hollywood came up with product that was exactly that,” said Universal prexy of marketing and distribution Adam Fogelson.

Don’t expect any of the new Labor Day titles — 20th Century Fox’s “Babylon A.D.,” Lionsgate’s sendup “Disaster Movie,” MGM’s R-rated laffer “College,” Overture’s political thriller “Traitor” and Focus Features’ quirky comedy “Hamlet 2″ — to rack up big grosses. Most should, however, see solid biz for their respective genres, continuing a summerlong trend of relative prosperity.

For years, the film biz avoided opening movies over Labor Day because it was too close to the fall TV season. That’s not the case anymore, however, since TV shows preem throughout the year.

The race for the weekend crown could see a battle between DreamWorks/Paramount holdover “Tropic Thunder” and “Babylon.” “Hamlet 2″ is off to a wobbly start, having opened wide on Wednesday to $245,813 from 1,530 runs. “Traitor,” toplining Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce, grossed a respectable $792,214 as it opened in 2,054 on Wednesday. The remaining Labor Day titles open today.

Biggest victor of the summer B.O. is Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight,” which should jump the $500 million mark domestically over the extended Labor Day frame. Cume was $492.7 million through Wednesday. Batman sequel is already the second highest grossing pic of all time after “Titanic” (which earned $600.8 million domestically).

Box office observers didn’t think “Dark Knight,” directed by Christopher Nolan, could reach such heights considering its dark and brooding tone. Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” likewise dark in tone, grossed $205.3 million domestically.

Superhero tentpole “Iron Man,” from Paramount and Marvel Entertainment, also flourished. The first release of summer, “Iron Man” far exceeded expectations in grossing $317.5 million, making it the No. 2 film of the season. Paramount also took the No. 3 spot at the summer box office with Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” ($315.3 million).

The summer did see several high-profile misses. Warners started off with a loose wheel when “Speed Racer” stalled. Eddie Murphy starrer “Meet Dave,” from Fox, and Mike Myers starrer “The Love Guru,” from Paramount, also failed to take off. “Speed Racer” grossed $43.9 million; “Guru,” $32.2 million; and “Meet Dave,” $11.6 million. (“Speed Racer” was by far the most expensive to produce.)

Warners was able to turn its fortunes around and will end the summer No. 1 in market share. (Bear in mind that market share isn’t a barometer of fiscal health, since turning a profit depends upon how much a movie cost to produce and market).

WB’s victory was fueled by “Dark Knight,” as well as “Get Smart” and New Line titles “Sex and the City” and 3-D adventure “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

One of the biggest myths upended this summer: that women can’t open films or turn a pic into an event movie. “Sex and the City” debuted to a whopping $57 million on its way to cuming $152.4 million domestically. Universal’s female-skewing “Mamma Mia!” also shined, cuming north of $126 million to date. Girl pics “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2,” likewise from Warners, and Sony’s “The House Bunny” also have done solid biz.

Paramount is a close No. 2 in summer market share thanks to “Iron Man,” “Crystal Skull,” DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda” ($212.9 million) and “Tropic Thunder,” which cume roughly $71 million through Wednesday and is still in the heart of its run.

Universal is No. 3 in market share, turning in a slate of strong performers, led by “The Incredible Hulk” ($134.4 million), “Wanted” ($133.8 million) and “Mamma Mia!” The best news for U is that seems to have successfully relaunched the “Hulk” film franchise, and perhaps started a new one with “Wanted.” U also jump-started the long-dormant “Mummy” franchise, with “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” earning $94.9 million to date.

Sony’s biggest hit of the summer was Will Smith starrer “Hancock,” which has cumed just north of $212 million. Studio is No. 4 in market share, with 14.2%. It has released no fewer than five comedies this summer, led by “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” ($99.7 million) and “Step Brothers” ($96.4 million).

The Mouse House headline of the summer was Disney-Pixar’s critically acclaimed “Wall-E,” which cumed $216.7 million. Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” cumed $141.5 million — something of a disappointment since the first “Narnia” film earned far more at $291.7 million. Disney ranks No. 5 in market share for the summer, Fox No. 6.

Of all the majors, Fox had the roughest summer, primarily because of “Meet Dave,” which will be a financial loss for the studio. Sequel “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” won’t lose money for the studio, since the pic cost under $20 million to produce, but it was a box office disappointment, cuming $20.7 million.

Comedy “What Happens in Vegas” is Fox’s top-grossing pic of the summer, earning $80.2 million. M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” earned $64.4 million.

Fox has had good luck opening male-skewing fare over Labor Day and looks to continue that trend with “Babylon.” This year, though, there’s plenty of competition for young males, including “College” and “Disaster Movie,” from the team behind the “Scary Movie” sendup franchise.

“Babylon” opens in 3,390 runs, “Disaster Movie” 2,642 and “College” 2,123.

Openers on the specialty side include Sony Pictures Classics’ “I Served the King of England,” opening in eight theaters in New York and L.A.; Eros’ “Hijack,” bowing in six runs; and First Look’s “Sukiyaki Western Django,” opening in one theater.

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