Box office outperforms expectations

Mid-range rovers boost '08's domestic numbers

Mid-range films are helping to fuel a surge at the 2008 domestic box office that virtually no one expected.

To date, this summer’s revenues are running ahead of summer 2007 — the best on record — by 4%. This past weekend was up a hearty 20% over the same frame last year, thanks to “Wall-E” and the action-packed “Wanted,” both of which exceeded expectations.

Average gross for the top 10 films so far this season is dead even with last year at $149.2 million.

But the average gross of films ranking Nos. 11-20 is $36.7 million. Last year, the average gross was $22 million, underscoring the difference it can make when films down the food chain perform well.

Broad comedies “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and “Get Smart” have done solid business, while women turned “Sex and the City” into a runaway hit. (All three films are on the top 10 chart for the summer to date).

Eco-thriller “The Happening” and horror pic “The Strangers” also have outperformed expectations, grossing $59.1 million and $51.5 million, respectively.

Last summer, horror sequel “Hostel: Part II” fell flat after its June bow, grossing $17.5 million through the end of June. Female-skewing title “Georgia Rule” likewise failed to make nice with its aud, grossing $18.9 million after opening in early May.

Romancers are doing far better this summer, and not just “Sex and the City.” Fox’s “What Happens in Vegas” ranks No. 8 on the current summer box office chart, with a cume of $78.3 million. Sony’s “Made of Honor” comes in at No. 14 with a cume of $46 million.

Family films are also prospering.

Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which has played heavily to families, topped the $300 million mark at the domestic box office on Monday.

Over the weekend, Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E” opened to $63 million, the third best opening ever for a Pixar film and well ahead of last summer’s $47 million opening of Disney-Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” which went on to cume a robust $206.4 million domestically. “Kung Fu Panda” has grossed $179.3 million to date.

For U’s “Wanted,” action combined with Angelina Jolie’s name on the marquee led to a boffo $50.9 million opening — the sixth best of all time for an R-rated pic.

On the superhero front, Paramount’s “Iron Man” is the top-grossing film of the year, with a cume of $309.2 million. Universal and Marvel’s reboot “The Incredible Hulk” has been a hit with fanboys, cuming $115.8 million to date. Although “The Incredible Hulk” isn’t likely to cume much more than Ang Lee’s 2003 “Hulk,” which grossed roughly $132 million domestically, U says that’s good enough to signal a new film franchise.

Ask distributors and exhibs and they’ll say that the summer is working because films are hitting their targets, be they big event titles like “Iron Man” or more audience-specific titles like “Sex and the City.”

Others suggest the sagging economy and skyrocketing gas prices are causing people to cancel summer travel plans. The next best option becomes a trip to the multiplex.

“There have been excellent movies in every genre. That is the key to overall box office health,” said Par vice chair Rob Moore. “Every segment of the audience has turned out a hit.”

With “Crystal Skull’s” new cume of $300 million, Paramount has now released four of the six titles that have crossed $300 million since the beginning of summer 2007, reflecting the strength of the studio’s marketing and distribution team. “Crystal Skull” is only the second film of 2008 to reach $300 million after “Iron Man.”

The overall strength of the 2008 summer slate has helped to make up for weak links, including “Speed Racer” and “The Love Guru.”

Generally speaking, summer 2007 was more cluttered, with more wide releases crowded into one weekend. Many mid-range and genre pics fell by the wayside, including “Mr. Brooks” ($27 million) and “28 Weeks Later” ($28.4 million).

This go-round, studios were more careful about limiting the number of wide releases each weekend to two and, in some cases, three, giving movies more of a chance to breathe and reach their target aud. (Calendar does get more crowded in August.)

Last summer’s B.O. boom had the benefit of three-quels and sequels. Paramount’s “Transformers” was the only original film among the top five grossers, earning $310.6 million domestically.

With a 2008 slate sporting many more original titles, Hollywood was worried it wouldn’t be able to replicate the box office success of last summer. Yet it’s done just that so far, although it’s not clear whether summer 2008 will be able to end ahead of summer 2007.