For movie theaters, it's tentpole city

Last summer was a record breaker at the box office. Can Hollywood top itself again this year?

Studio execs have good reason to be confident as they assemble at the annual ShoWest exhib confab in Las Vegas. Box office is up, for starters. And this summer’s movie lineup is chockablock with starry tentpoles, several of which will be released in 3-D. Nor does it hurt that Tim Burton’s 3-D “Alice in Wonderland” just set an opening weekend record for spring release, its $116 million domestic take easily surpassing that of “The Passion of the Christ.”

The lineup boasts the usual array of big-budget sequels and remakes, a “Twilight” movie and even a few originals. “Iron Man 2,” “Sex and the City 2,” “Toy Story 3″ in 3-D and a bigscreen adaptation of “The A-Team” will all have bowed before the key July 4 holiday weekend. “Batman” cash machine Chris Nolan’s mysterious “Inception” arrives later that month, followed by Angelina Jolie’s “Bourne”-like turn in “Salt.”

Warners distrib chief Dan Fellman, for one, predicts an even more boffo summer than a year ago, when movies racked up $4.31 billion domestic, a slight gain over the previous year.

“It’s going to be enormous,” Fellman says, citing the strong lineup in May alone. “Exhibitors are going to be very happy, and the public is going to get a lot of great movies.”

Paramount kicks off the summer movie season May 7, when it releases “Iron Man 2″ in the same slot as its predecessor. Based on a lesser-known Marvel character, the original opened big two years ago, eventually raking in more than $318.3 million domestic. The comicbook adaptation not only boosted Robert Downey Jr.’s career considerably, it caught the eye of Disney CEO Bob Iger, who acquired Marvel to gain access to other library characters. Director Jon Favreau and Downey returned for the sequel, which also features post-“Wrestler” Mickey Rourke as a villain.

“This movie is going to be a big honking hit,” says Don Harris, Paramount exec VP distribution, citing the Downey’s increased starpower and familiarity with the franchise as B.O. boosters.

He’s equally bullish about “Shrek” in 3-D, terming it better than the last two installments in the DreamWorks Animation franchise. “Shrek Forever After” arrives three years after the last installment, with key vocal talent in place and our bored green ogre dispatched to a land where he has never met his love Fiona. The 3-D could reinvigorate the franchise, which declined 26% to $320.7 million at the B.O. in the last installment but has been adapted into a stage musical.

Harris predicts that “Iron Man 2″ and “Shrek Forever After” will end up two of year’s biggest films – “as long as you count ‘Avatar’ in 2009.”

The other big sequel of the month, “Sex and the City 2,” bows May 27. Warners, which picked up distribution when it absorbed New Line, is bringing footage and stars to Sho-West this year. It’s definitely the most femme-friendly tentpole until “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” arrives a month later.

“Prince of Persia” competes head to head with “Sex and the City 2″ during Memorial Day weekend. Jerry Bruckheimer produced the vidgame adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a prince who tries to stop an angry ruler from unleashing a sandstorm that could destroy the world; Disney slotted the movie into the “Pirates of the Caribbean” slot, but it remains to be seen whether Gyllenhaal’s green-screen emoting will drawn the same crowds as Depp’s Captain Jack.

Similarly, Universal will discover whether auds are still eager to see Russell Crowe in action mode after a few underwhelming B.O. turns. He reteams with his frequent collaborator, “Gladiator” director Ridley Scott, on the latest retelling of the “Robin Hood” story, debuting May 14.

The other big 3-D bow of the summer, “Toy Story 3,” arrives June 18, more than a decade after the last installment. Once part of a tug of war between Pixar and former Mouse House CEO Michael Eisner, the toon takes up with the toys dispatched to a daycare center when Andy heads to college. “Little Miss Sunshine” writer Michael Arndt penned the script. Three weeks later, U bows its 3-D toon “Despicable Me,” from “Ice Age” producer Christopher Meledandri.

Summit’s third installment in the “Twilight” series will set teen girls’ hearts aflutter June 30, the Wednesday before July 4. “Eclipse” is expected to be a hit, just not necessarily a much bigger one than the sequel, which racked up nearly $300 million at the box office. At this point, it will be hard to expand the audience much further beyond that sizeable base.

The vampire romance will compete against “The Last Airbender,” M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon fantasy toon. Fox moved “Knight and Day,” the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz actioner directed by James Mangold, away from that date — it now debuts June 25, several weeks ahead of “Inception” and “Salt.”

Warners considers “Inception” a major tentpole; the thriller was written and directed by Nolan and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, but the story about the architecture of the mind is murky. Will the studio market it enough like “Batman” to lure fans that passed on other Nolan originals?

Col’s “Salt,” meanwhile, debuts in the same slot as “Bourne Supremacy.” Philip Noyce directed Jolie as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy by a defector. U will bow its “The Adjustment Bureau,” directed by “Bourne Ultimatum” scribe George Nolfi and toplined by Matt Damon, on July 30.

On the remake front, Fox has turned unlikely source material – campy ’80s action skein “The A-Team” – into an action movie starring Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper. Sadly, there’s no Mr. T in this June 11 release: Ultimate Fighting Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson plays Sgt. Bosco “Bad Attitude” Baracas.

Columbia is releasing its exercise in ’80s nostalgia, “The Karate Kid,” on the same day, with Will Smith’s son Jaden in the title role originally made memorable by Ralph Macchio. Jackie Chan takes over as martial arts instructor in the China-set remake.

And that’s not all: Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Chris Rock star in Columbia’s “Grown Ups,” due June 25 with Dennis Dugan as director. Warner Bros. releases comicbook adaptation “Jonah Hex” on June 18. And Nicolas Cage reteams with “National Treasure” helmer Jon Turteltaub in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” debuting July 16. Pic is loosely based on Disney’s “Fantasia.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more