Here’s one of the bigger questions facing attendees at ShowEast this year: How will “Summer of ’08 — the Non-Sequel” play?

After a record-setting summer that left studios and exhibs wishing the summer could be truly endless, early indications are that while next year’s summer slate looks seriously promising, it hasn’t shaped up yet as the total slam dunk that the 2007 summer turned out to be.

Domestic grosses hit $4.15 billion with four films topping $300 million: “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”; franchise pics like “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Rush Hour 3,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “Ocean’s Thirteen” delivered; and new properties like “Ratatouille,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Knocked Up” exceeded expectations.

Still, the major studios aren’t shrinking from the challenge. Summer 2008 won’t be sequel-free, and it will be replete with recognizable properties mixed with an array of star vehicles plus potential franchise starters.

“To me, the summer of 2008 looks much more star-driven than sequel-driven,” notes Sony distribution and marketing topper Jeff Blake. “At this point, everyone is looking toward it for more of the same. There are a lot of very strong properties.”

New Line distribution chief David Tuckerman, who’s being honored at ShowEast, is bullish about next summer, with an obvious caveat — that it’s unlikely that May 2008 will duplicate May 2007’s feat of being the launching pad for three movies (the third iterations of “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”) that topped $300 million.

“Having those three May films do that level of business — that’s going to be hard to beat, although we may get lucky next May,” Tuckerman admits.

Mouse House distribution topper Chuck Viane says that 2008 looks much less predictable, but emphasizes he’s initially impressed with the array of choices that will be on offer to summer moviegoers.

“You really don’t know right now which film is going to be the next ‘Transformers,'” he adds. “But things will certainly be very competitive. There’s a lot of originality this time, and no one’s playing it safe.”

Viane points to the new Disney/Pixar comedy “Wall-E” — about a robot looking for love in outer space — as evidence of studios taking a shot at the unknown.

The 2008 summer’s not sequel-free by any means, however. It will include the sixth Batman pic, though “The Dark Knight” won’t have the word “Batman” in the title; the fourth incarnation of “Indiana Jones,” a third “Mummy” and the second versions of “Hellboy” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

May flowers

Summer will start — as usual — on the first weekend in May with “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey Jr., followed by Warner’s “Speed Racer” on May 9 and “Prince Caspian” on May 16. The second “Narnia” pic may be the surest early summer bet, given the good will left over from the breakout success two years ago of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

One of the biggest questions will arise on May 22 when Harrison Ford once again lashes his bullwhip in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” It will have been 19 years since “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was in theaters — a long time for any franchise to come out of retirement.

Still, Paramount’s paid Ford the ultimate compliment by slotting the pic in the key Memorial Day weekend. And for those seeking precedent in terms of successfully dusting off a franchise, it’s worth noting that Bruce Willis managed to generated decent biz in “Live Free or Die Hard” this summer despite a 12-year gap in the saga of Willis’ embattled New York cop John McClane.

New Line’s going to counter-program in late May with a “Sex and the City” feature, with the entire cast reprising their TV roles four years after the HBO series ended. “We think there’s huge want-to-see on this,” Tuckerman adds.

“Sex and the City” is only one of many high-profile summer comedies — perhaps one of the big differences between 2008 and 2007. The laff list includes Fox’s “Starship Dave” with Eddie Murphy; Disney/Pixar’s “Wall-E”; Sony’s trio of Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With Zohan,” “Pineapple Express” directed by Judd Apatow, and “Step Brothers,” which reunites “Talladega Nights” co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; Disney family comedy “South of the Border”; Apatow’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (Universal); and a feature version of the musical “Mamma Mia!” (Universal).

There are so many comedies, in fact, that two laffers are going head to head on June 20: Warner’s “Get Smart” with Steve Carell and Par’s “The Love Guru” with Mike Meyers.  Speculation’s already emerged that one of those two will vacate the slot.

Crowded field

Fox has already moved its remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” back to December from the second weekend in May. Blake admits the potential for overcrowding tends to fuel grousing by exhibs that the product flow should be spread out to other parts of the year.

“That’s the big complaint from that side — that this needs to be a 12-month business,” Blake notes. “From our side, it’s that we really need our films to stay a little longer in theaters.”

It’s doubtful that anyone will complain about Sony’s Will Smith adventure “Hancock,” formerly titled “Tonight He Comes.” Smith’s summer track record — “Independence Day,” two “Men in Black” hits and “I, Robot” — has been stellar, and he’s been given the venerable July 4 slot.

On the following weekend, one of the summer’s interesting collisions may take place as three pics are set then: the “Hellboy” sequel, Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder” and New Line’s “Journey 3-D.”

Tuckerman sees “Journey” — a remake of the 1959 Jules Verne film “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the first wide release of a 3-D live-actioner — as the wild card of the summer. “It’s so different from what people are used to seeing, but it’s also a real summer roller-coaster type film,” he adds.

New Line and partner Walden Media have waited until summer for another reason: They want to be certain there are enough theaters with 3-D technology installed. They’re aiming to release “Journey 3-D” on as many as 1,800 screens.