B.O. in ’06: The big bounce

Summer could hit a record, but it will takes some sleeper hits to top 2002

This time last year, box office receipts were down 5% and industry pundits were asking whether the culprit was videogames, home theater systems or just weak movies.

But with B.O. up 4% so far this year, a different question is starting to emerge: What would it take for 2006 to set a new box office record?

Through last weekend, receipts are at their second- highest point ever after 16 weeks — $2.478 billion.

With a wide range of summer blockbusters each poised to gross more than $100 million, the box office could amass an even bigger lead heading into autumn.

That could put 2006 in position to beat the all-time annual box office record set in 2002: $9.272 billion.

It won’t be easy. Studios would need to gather a big reserve by the end of the summer for that to happen, as the fourth quarter in 2006 looks relatively weak, with only one major franchise (James Bond), along with a few potential family hits like “Happy Feet” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

But the overall picture looks promising for the industry. And even if the B.O. does go south again, it will be hard to argue, as some box office pundits did last year, that the general public is simply turning its back on the movies.

Looking ahead, several pictures have a good shot at matching or beating the No. 1 smash of 2002: “Spider-Man,” which cumed $403.7 million domestically.

“Mission: Impossible 3,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Cars,” “Superman Returns” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” all have blockbuster potential.

Combined, these five pics have a good shot at eclipsing the five biggest releases of the “Spider-Man” summer, a list that also included “Star Wars Episode 2,” “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” “Men in Black 2” and “Signs,” which cumed a total of $1.346 billion, or an average $269 million each.

The weakest of that lot was “Men in Black 2,” which cumed $190.4 million.

“X-Men 3,” “Poseidon,” and family pics “Over the Hedge” and “Monster House,” also have the potential to beat that number.

But in order for 2006 to reach new box office heights, the year might also have to produce an unexpected runaway success, something on the order of 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (which cumed $241 million).

This summer’s comedies “Nacho Libre,” “The Breakup,” “You, Me and Dupree” and Nascar-themed “Talledaga Nights” are all vying for that crown.

Then there’s the wild card — a pic with huge awareness but very unpredictable B.O. prospects: “Snakes on a Plane.”

In all, summer 2006 has nine big-budget action-adventure pics for adults and families, five CGI toons, and four comedies with top genre stars.

On sheer volume, however, 2002 may have an edge. Though there are more family toons coming out this summer, the record year had about 12 big-budget dramas or action-adventures aimed at adults, giving the market more ability to absorb flops like “K-19” or “The Windtalkers.”

If several tentpoles this summer cume less than $150 million, the biggest hits would need to be $400 million-plus monsters for the market to stay well ahead.

To reach those levels, this summer’s blockbusters need to not only open big, but hold on. Four of summer 2002’s five biggest movies took in more than 70% of their gross after opening weekend.

This year’s biggest openers, including “Ice Age: the Meltdown” and “Scary Movie 4,” are on track to do much less than that, even though they opened around spring break, when kids are available to go to theaters on weeknights, as in summer.

Thus far, 2006 has been helped by several big hits skedded relatively early in the year, including the aforementioned pair, along with “The Pink Panther” and “Failure to Launch.”

Going forward, the comparisons with 2002 will get tougher, as big movies go up against big movies. Come the holidays, 2006 has even fewer tentpoles to match up to 2002 blockbusters like “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

But even if box office dips later this year, the prognosis is certainly good for those who worried that DVDs, videogames and home theaters have had an irreversible impact on the health of the box office. After all, it’s unlikely that audiences would pay less attention to their Xboxes and iPods this spring and become obsessed by them all over again in the summer.