Can box office lightning strike twice?

Hollywood hopes for record year in 2010

Domestic B.O. revenues reached $10.7 billion in 2009, an all-time high and the first year that ticket sales have topped $10 billion.

Now comes the hard part: hitting that milestone again in 2010.

The good news for Hollywood is that the release calendar shows plenty of potential , on paper at least.

Most of the majors have pared back their release slates by two or three titles. Even before the writer’s strike and economic crisis, studios said they would cut back, citing an overcrowded marketplace and agreeing that films needed more breathing room.

Not surprisingly, there are more 3D titles than ever before , including the first-ever face-off of two 3D movies opening the same weekend , and the added income exhibs are charging will help boost ’10 B.O. And, of course, there are plenty of event titles waiting in the wings, ranging from family pics and comedies to action-adventure , many of them franchise hopefuls.

Aside from 3D, there is one other notable trend: Year-round hopefuls. Though Hollywood has often given lip-service to the idea of good films every week of the year, studios often avoided slow months like January and February. But after some 2009 surprise hits, the studios are once again embracing all 12 months.

And the lineup includes, as usual, a glut of sequels, reboots and films that studios hope will create new franchises. Overlapping with the last-named group is a slew of projects based on kids books. And, naturally, Hollywood will offer the minimum yearly requirement of romantic comedies, horror titles and actioners.

Talking about the great 2009 performance, 20th Century Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson says, “As audiences have embraced films as diverse as ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Avatar,’ it shows that consumers have an endless appetite for movies that work.” Aye, but there’s the rub: How to know what will work. The number of big-scale films this coming year is no guarantee of success. Some of 2009’s tentpoles boosted the box office spectacularly, notably “Avatar,” but other biggies got less-than-blockbuster numbers (“Watchmen,” “G-Force,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Terminator Salvation”).

One reason box office revenues exploded in 2009 was that a string of small- to medium-sized sleepers turned into surprise mega-hits, including “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Taken,” “The Hangover,” “District 9,” “Paranormal Activity,” “The Proposal” and “The Blind Side.” And some films that had high hopes wildly exceeded expectations, including “Avatar,” “New Moon,” “2012” and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”

While January and February used to be viewed as a dumping ground for studio fare, “Taken” and “Paul Blart” stirred up a rethink of that idea. So Warners will open Mel Gibson topliner “Edge of Darkness” on Jan. 29, the same weekend that “Taken” opened last year. In “Taken,” Liam Neeson played a former government operative whose daughter is kidnapped; in “Darkness,” Gibson plays a homicide cop whose daughter is murdered.

Last January, the broad comedy of Sony’s “Paul Blart” surprised many with its robust B.O. success. This year, Fox ups the ante with plans to open a big family comedy, Dwayne Johnson topliner “The Tooth Fairy,” on Jan. 22.

The sequel-filled calendar includes Paramount’s “Iron Man 2,” Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” in 3D, DreamWorks Animation/Par’s 3D toon “Shrek Forever After,” Summit Entertainment’s latest “Twilight” pic, “Eclipse,” plus “Sex and the City 2” and “Harry Potter 7” from Warner Bros. There is also a new “Narnia” film and a “Meet the Fockers” sequel.

Other ambitious tentpoles with franchise potential include Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” from Warners, Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Nicolas Cage; Sony’s “The Green Hornet” and Disney’s “The Prince of Persia.”

Reboots and remakes include include Fox’s “Wall Street 2,” starring Charlie Sheen, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Douglas, from writer-director Oliver Stone; it bows April 23. Sony’s “The Karate Kid,” arriving June 11, transplants the bullied-kid tale to China and aims to up the kung-fu cred with Jackie Chan. Warner’s “Clash of the Titans” (March 26) and “Gulliver’s Travels” on Dec. 22 mine familiar material but look to find wider appeal with big f/x and, in the case of “Gulliver,” the comic touch of star Jack Black.

Universal’s “The Wolfman” (Feb. 12), which had been bumped from the release sked previously, hopes that auds are as keen on werewolves as they’ve been for vampires, while its “Robin Hood” (May 14) dresses up the familiar tale with stars Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett and big action via helmer Ridley Scott.

Other ambitious tentpoles with franchise potential include Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” from Warners, Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Nicolas Cage; Sony’s “The Green Hornet” and Disney’s “The Prince of Persia.”

The first tentpole of the year, also from Fox, comes Feb. 12 when “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” unspools. The film is one of a number of 2010 pics based on familiar properties for kids and young adults. Warners choose Sept. 24 instead of summer or holiday slot to debut Zack Snyder’s “Guardians of Ga’Hoole,” based on the book series by Kathryn Lasky.

Kids books also provided the source material for a pair of Easter releases, DreamWorks Animation/Paramount’s 3D toon “How to Train Your Dragon” and Fox’s “Diary of A Wimpy Kid,” as well as Fox’s femme-driven “Ramona and Beezus.” “Marmaduke,” starring Owen Wilson, is based on the longrunning comicstrip.

Paramount’s July 4 family tentpole is “The Last Airbender,” from M. Night Shyamalan and based on the children’s TV series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

If they click with auds, these films give their respective studios new franchise fodder.

While it’s not essentially a franchise, “Alice in Wonderland” remains an iconic property, and anticipation is high for Tim Burton’s reworking of the tale. Pic marks the first 3D release of the year, bowing on March 5. The Disney release is expected to draw a broad audience, along the lines of “Avatar,” the first 3D live-action tentpole that has appealed to all audiences, not just families.

In the fall, horror and gross-out humor go 3D as well with the releases of Lionsgate’s “Saw VII 3D,” Paramount’s “Jackass 3D” and superhero sendup “Megamind,” starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Tina Fey.

The first 3D faceoff is set for Dec. 17, when both Warners’ “Yogi Bear” and Disney’s fanboy-driven “Tron Legacy” bow , presumably on more 3D screens than are currently available. With exhibs continuing to add screens, Hollywood is hoping there will be enough to handle the flow.

After the poor showings of a number of studio adult dramas in the past two years, it’s no surprise that the release calendar is slim on more serious fare. Some of the remaining include CBS Films’ Brendan Fraser-Harrison Ford starrer “Extraordinary Measures,” opening Jan. 22; U’s Paul Greengrass’ pic “Green Zone” on March 12.

Gulliver’s Travels” is one of a handful of comedy action-adventures that includes Fox’s bigscreen adaptation of the “A-Team” TV series, Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” and Sony’s Andy Tennant-directed “The Bounty Hunter,” toplining Gerard Butler as a bounter hunter who learns that his next target is his ex-wife, played by Jennifer Aniston. Laffers come in all sizes and themes, making for a crowded stage even in the early months of the year. Disney’s Kristen Bell starrer “When in Rome” opens later in January, while Warner’s “Valentine’s Day,” starring Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Alba, bows Feb. 12. Fox has the Shawn Levy-directed “Date Night” in April, starring Steve Carrell and Tina Fey.

The summer comedy roster includes U’s Judd Apatow-produced “Get Him to the Greek,” (June 11) toplining Jonah Hill and Russell Brand, Sony’s “Grown Ups” (June 25), starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Kevin James, and DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Dinner for Schmucks” (July 23), directed by Jay Roach and starring Paul Rudd.

On July 30, two broad comedies are slated: Paramount’s Harrison Ford-Rachel McAdams starrer “Morning Glory” and U’s untitled “Meet the Fockers” sequel.

Considering the strength of 2009, topped off by “Avatar,” it’s hard for some B.O. watchers to imagine that that degree of success could be repeated in 2010. Then again, many were similarly skeptical that the fanfare accompanying the Avatar” release would pay off.

Fox closes out 2010 with “Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Disney distributed the first two “Narnia” titles, so Fox has plenty of catching up to do in selling the franchise, which had a troubled second outing at the domestic B.O.

But Fox, along with other majors, is hoping that 2010 is as vigorous a voyage as was 2009.

Brian Cochrane, Timothy M. Gray and Pat Saperstein contributed to this report.

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