Slump: The sequel?

2006 B.O. dips but biz looks to make hay in May

For the past year, the town has been divided into two camps: the “Slump? What slump?” contingent and the “The sky is falling” faction.

It’s happening again.

Less than three months into 2006, box office is slumping for the second consecutive year — or the fourth, based on admissions.

As of March 19, total grosses were down 2%, according to Nielsen EDI.

At the recent ShoWest confab, exhibition and studio execs pinned their hopes for a rebound on a summer full of tentpoles.

From “Cars” to “Mission: Impossible 3” to “Superman Returns,” this summer has a number of pics with huge potential that could put B.O. back into the black.

Of course, 2005 had its share of mega-tentpoles too, including “Star Wars: Episode III,” “Batman Begins,” “Madagascar” and “War of the Worlds.” Most of those performed well, but they weren’t enough to keep grosses on a par with 2004.

Indeed, box office was down 9% last summer, only working its way back up to a 6% annual drop thanks to a strong holiday season led by “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

Last year, some explained the dip by noting 2004 had two extraordinary pics — “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” — that made comparisons tough.

But in 2006, the only viable reason for a dip so far might be that the first major CGI toon of 2005, “Robots,” came out in early March, while this year’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” doesn’t hit theaters until late March.

But if the trend doesn’t reverse itself by summer, studios are going to have to dig real deep to deny that either the movies are getting worse or auds are simply less interested in going to the movies.