Hollywood pulls off summer heroics

Studios give birth to five potential franchises

The July 18 weekend dramatized why this summer is like no other.

The domestic box office topped a quarter of a billion dollars in just three days, fueled by the record-breaking $158.3 million opening of Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” and the strong bow of Universal’s “Mamma Mia.”

More than any other summer in recent years, the studios are offering a widely diverse slate of films, and the audience seems to be expanding beyond the usual hardcore audience that laps up CGI-heavy summer fare. The result: an unprecedented $260.7 million in total ticket sales in three days.

The weekend was not an anomaly. Since May, B.O. has brought better-than-expected results as Hollywood broke its summer template in terms of scheduling and content.

The gambles paid off. Movies of all shapes and sizes have prospered and performed better than expected and across all genres (with the notable exception of specialty films).

All segments of the moviegoing public have been turning out as the summer has been packed with content that’s new to the bigscreen — which, as a side benefit to Hollywood, has created at least five potential film franchises: “Iron Man,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Sex and the City,” “Wanted” and “Get Smart.”

Summer 2007 had set a bar that was unusually high, due to the huge number of heavily promoted sequels (11 in all). After a glum winter and spring, most had predicted that this year’s box office would fall far short of last year’s record, and even drop below 2006.

As it turns out, year-to-date revenues have nearly caught up with 2007 levels, while the summer session is running slightly ahead.

“Last year, we were faced with a summer filled with sequels and three-quels,” says U prexy of marketing and distribution Adam Fogelson. “Everyone said, ‘Eh, it’s all retreads, no one cares.’ This year, everyone said, ‘Eh, the summer can’t possibly live up to the enormous success of last summer,’ but business has been spectacular.

“If you look at last summer and this summer as one 15-month cycle, it’s a pretty good indication of just how big of a range of movies are out there.”

Through July 22, box office revenues for the year clocked in at $5.49 billion, compared to $5.52 billion for the same frame last year. That’s less than 1% behind 2007 (and a healthy 4% gain over 2006, 10% over 2005 and 3% over 2004).

Attendance year-to-date is still down 3% from last year, and 2% behind for the summer. That gap could be narrowed in the next two weeks when the Motion Picture Assn. of America releases its revised figures. The MPAA issues an average ticket price each quarter, with the current level set at $7.08. But because the family market has been so strong in the second quarter, it’s possible that the average will be lower — meaning more tickets sold than expected.

As of July 22, summer box office revenues were running slightly ahead of last year, or $2.87 billion compared to $2.85 billion. That’s roughly 1% ahead of last summer, 7% ahead of 2006, 14% ahead of 2005 and 13% ahead of 2004.

Few industry execs thought this summer had a shot at matching last year’s record-breaking $4.16 billion in total B.O. grosses. Paramount execs were bullish on “Iron Man,” but even they were surprised at its level of success.

No one was sure how broadly Christopher Nolan’s dark and brooding “Dark Knight” would play. Nolan’s “Batman Begins” brought a new edge and feel to the Batman film franchise that pleased fanboys, but wasn’t seen as a broad player.

“Dark Knight,” featuring the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, has turned into the event film of the summer, if not the year, grossing a record-breaking $220 million in its first six days. That means the tentpole will jump the $300 million mark domestically in its second weekend.

“Mamma Mia,” while considered smart counterprogramming, was hardly a sure bet, considering that “Rent” and “The Producers” proved that film transfers of well-known tuners do not guarantee blockbuster B.O. “Mamma Mia” sang its way to a $27.7 million debut, the best ever for a bigscreen musical.

In other words, a lot of Hollywood theories about what works and what doesn’t are being questioned. And it gets down to the basic fact that the market can prosper by the simple fact of good movies, backed up by aggressive and smart marketing campaigns.

There are also questions of timing. “Dark Knight” should theoretically have opened in May, when there’s much less competition from other films. But would it have done any better?

And Disney-Walden’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” has cumed $309 million worldwide to date. Many films would be happy with that tally, but it’s far short of the $744.1 million earned by the first “Chronicles of Narnia.” But the earlier film was released in December and studio execs are wondering if the difference was due to the shift in tone, or the shift in dates.

There are still seven weeks left of summer, with several potential big grosses waiting in the wings, plus a slew of comedies.

Wild cards are 20th Century Fox’s “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” (July 25) and Warner Bros.’ “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (Aug. 15). U’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (Aug. 1) is looking good.

Broad comedy “Tropic Thunder,” from DreamWorks and Paramount, also could rack up big grosses, while more offbeat comedies “Step Brothers” and “Pineapple Express,” both rated R and produced by Judd Apatow, could play at the top of their game.

Total grosses aren’t the only indication of good health.

The new franchises are a big contrast with only one last year, Par’s “Transformers.”

New franchises are particularly important for the home entertainment business, as are overall healthy box office grosses. Many predict the summer boom spells strong DVD sales later on.

The ailing economy and skyrocketing price of gas are no doubt helping the movie biz as more Americans stay at home (Variety, June 30-July 13). Sooner or later, people want to get out of the house and a trip to the multiplex is cheaper than most other outings.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“When you give audiences something they are so used to, it’s not whetting their appetite enough,” says one studio topper. “But when you give them something new that’s done right, they are intrigued. A sequel or a three-quel doesn’t build a new audience.”

Critics may carp that the studios’ lineups are reliant on the tried and true, but in fact there were some chances taken.

Adam Sandler is a proven commodity, but he and Sony took a risk by mixing his brand of comedy with political commentary in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”

Marvel took a big chance in casting Robert Downey Jr. as “Iron Man” and Universal took a risk with “Hellboy” after Sony’s first film grossed an acceptable, but hardly fabulous $59 million domestically.

Before the bow of New Line’s “Sex and the City,” no one thought a largely female aud could open a movie to such big grosses. The film has cumed nearly $150 million domestically and a whopping $221.6 million globally.

Many thought it was too soon for another “The Incredible Hulk” film, but they were wrong. Fox smartly marketed M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-horror pic “The Happening” and it surpassed expectations.

As one studio exec laughs, “This summer, we are actually making movies that people are interested in seeing.”

Two movies have grossed north of $300 million domestically — “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — with “Dark Knight” joining the club.

“Kung Fu Panda” has grossed a little more than $200 million domestically and another $221.6 million overseas, while “Wall-E” is close to jumping the $200 million line Stateside, but still hasn’t rolled out a big way overseas. Numerous films will end up grossing between $100 million and $200 million domestically, and far more will reach that mark in worldwide grosses.

“As individual studios, and as an industry collectively, we’ve done a good job,” Fogelson says. “There have been a lot of films that have done a lot of business, and not just the tentpoles. In many cases, the second film on a given weekend has managed to do really well.

“While the underperformers have been notable, they are the exception,” he continues. “It’s been a very healthy summer.”

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