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Small films could make summer sizzle

Studios salivate over unknown pics scoring big

Even with the nation’s economy expected to remain in recession, this summer promises a healthy counterpoint. Franchises bulk up the season, with appealing titles such as the 11th “Star Trek,” the sixth Harry Potter,  the “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels and Demons,” the fourth “Terminator,” “X-Men” spinoff “Wolverine,” the third “Ice Age” and the second “Transformers” and “Night at the Museum.”  

Yet as much as studios love tentpoles, it’s the successful alternatives that are just as key. Last summer’s box office revenues surprised the industry by coming in just behind the 2007 summer’s record-breaking haul of $4.16 billion, thanks not just to “The Dark Knight” but also such titles as “Get Smart,” “Sex and the City,”  “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Wanted,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” “Pineapple Express” and “Step Brothers.”

 So what will give the summer its sizzle are the not-so-obvious success stories. In other words, what will be 2009’s “The Devil Wears Prada”? Can some of the smaller summer titles duplicate the surprisingly strong winter perfs of Sony’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Taken”?

Comedies are looking particularly promising, given not just the “Blart” take of $140 million, but the $100 million plus from Warner Bros.’ recent laffers  “Yes Man,” “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Four Christmases.” The thinking is that with the economic news continuing to be grim, comedies are especially able to dial into moviegoing audience’s desire for escapism.

“If you had asked me how ‘Paul Blart’ would do before it opened, I would have said something like $70 million or $75 million,” notes Fox distribution topper Bruce Snyder. “I would not have believed the number that it’s done.”

With the “Ice Age,” “Night at the Museum” and “X-Men” franchises all returning, Fox is looking like it will rebound smartly from last summer’s downbeat performance. As for its nonfranchise player, it’s got Chris Columbus comedy “I Love You Beth Cooper,” starring “Heroes” co-star Hayden Panettiere.

Snyder believes that “Beth Cooper” should connect solidly with the 17-to-30-year-old demographic, given its premise — a valedictorian proclaims his love for the most popular girl in school during his graduation speech.

“I’m not predicting how big it will be, but ‘Beth Cooper’ looks very solid at this point,” Snyder says.

Fox also is aiming at the family demo this summer with the “Gremlins”-like “They Came From Upstairs” in August. “I think we’ll do well with this in the target area,” Snyder adds.

Disney execs are high on “The Proposal,” teaming Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in a romantic comedy set in the workplace. They’ve given it a prime June 19 release date, counting on Bullock’s ability to draw as she did in such entries as “Two Weeks Notice” and  “Miss Congeniality.”

Chuck Viane, Disney’s president of distribution, is particularly bullish about the film.

“It’s hard for me to hold back my enthusiasm because Sandra’s as great as I’ve ever seen her,” he adds. “It’s a workplace comedy like ‘9 to 5’ that everyone can relate to. I think we’re going to do very well in what’s a tough, competitive summer.”

Warner Bros. has similarly high hopes for buddy comedy “The Hangover” from director Todd Phillips. Premise follows a trio of groomsmen looking for the groom after going on a bender in Las Vegas. The studio showed a clip at ShoWest Tuesday, and distribution topper Dan Fellman is already predicting an impressive performance.

“‘The Hangover’ is going to fly past $100 million,” he says. “It’s a lot like the ’40-Year-Old Virgin.'”

In a sign of how big the comedy genre’s become, “The Hangover” and U’s comedy-adventure “Land of the Lost,” starring Will Ferrell, will go head-to-head on June 5.

Sony’s already pushing romantic comedy “The Ugly Truth,” slotted in July, with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl as a mismatched show producer and a chauvinistic expert on relationships and love. The “Grey’s Anatomy” star established a solid bigscreen presence in 2007’s summer comedy hit “Knocked Up” and followed up last winter with “27 Dresses.”  

It’s not all comedy all the time. Sony’s distrib topper Rory Breur notes that plenty of noncomedies, such as “Taken” and “Gran Torino,” have been hitting homeruns recently.

Bruer believes the combo of Denzel Washington and John Travolta in “The Taking of Pelham 123” will prove irresistible.

“Every test that we’ve had has shown that people are going to be gaga over this film,” he adds, and he’s equally enthused over “Year One,” with Harold Ramis directing, Judd Apatow producing and Jack Black and Michael Cera starring, calling it “a true comedy dream team.” 

Sony’s got perhaps the biggest counterprogrammer of the summer with “Julie & Julia,” starring Meryl Streep as chef Julia Child and Amy Adams as a latter-day acolyte.  

Warner Bros. — the studio has eight films set for the summer — is going the counterprogramming route twice, with spacey romancer “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” starring Rachel McAdams, and family drama “My Sister’s Keeper,” starring Cameron Diaz and opening against “Transformers 2.” It’s also opening the fourth “Final Destination,” family adventure “Shorts” and Dark Castle’s “Orphan,” in which a husband and wife who lose a baby adopt a 9-year-old girl with horrifying results.

Some of the early counterprogramming forays include Paramount going up against “Terminator: Salvation” May 22 with comedy spoof “Dance Flick.” Universal opens  Sam Raimi’s horror project “Drag Me to Hell” the following frame against Disney’s “Up.”

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