Last year at this time, studios looked over the summer landscape and started to get anxious: Too many sequels.
As it turned out, their fears were groundless, as nearly all of the pics scored boffo box office.
But for the coming summer, Hollywood has found new reasons to worry — this time over a lack of sequels and what is looking like an overdose of laffers. In addition to comedy cannibalization, the studios are sweating over the big bucks they’ve spent to start up a spate of new franchises, such as “Iron Man,” “Speed Racer” and “The Incredible Hulk.”
The comedies are no laughing matter. There are so many — 14 compared to seven last summer — that some will go head-to-head: On June 20, Warners’ “Get Smart” is scheduled to open against Paramount’s “The Love Guru,” starring Mike Myers.
Judd Apatow, behind last year’s hits “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” has no less than three scheduled comedies, all released by Sony: “Zohan,” which he co-wrote, “Pineapple Express” and “Step Brothers.” But the Apatow laugh-machine is tempered by the B.O. stumble of his most recent film, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” released at Christmas.
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And last week, perhaps sensing the crowded landscape, Universal quietly decided to move the Apatow-produced laffer “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” off of the May 30 frame to April 18. Had it opened on May 30, it would have bowed the same day as 20th Century Fox’s Eddie Murphy sci-fi family comedy “Starship Dave” and New Line’s comedy romp “Sex and the City.”
Such shuffling is indicative of what looks to be another crowded summer of releases of all genres. There’s a handful more wide releases slated for summer 2008 than there were in summer 2007, which was already considered crowded enough.
“There is no question that the summer itself is more crowded overall,” says Paramount vice chair Rob Moore. “Last summer, you had a giant movie opening every weekend. This summer, there are several on some weekends. Those months will be insane.”
Hollywood will also be tackling the fact that international box office is increasingly important in the summer — but comedies don’t always travel well and distribs will have to contend with the Beijing Olympics and soccer matches.
Heading into summer 2007, many in the media bemoaned the plethora of sequels and three-quels, saying the box office was sure to suffer for it. There was considerable consternation that a record number of releases and the sheer number of sequels would create box office doom.
Instead, the summer box office rocketed to historic heights, and the marketplace expanded. Audiences didn’t suffer from sequel fatigue, but seemed to flock to them, perhaps drawn in by their instant recognition.
For the most part, studios won’t have that luxury this year. There will be no three-peats like the mega-grossers “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Shrek.”
The only quantifiable franchise sequels are Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and Warner Bros.’ next “Batman” installment, “The Dark Knight.”
Most of the comedies are original concepts, and many of the tentpoles are efforts at launching new franchises. To be fair, it wasn’t just sequels that thrived last summer. New franchise entry “Transformers” transformed into an instant blockbuster, grossing more than $319 million domestically.
This summer, Warner Bros. has “Speed Racer” while Paramount and Marvel have “Iron Man.” Other studios will try to reboot action adventure franchises, like Par with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Fox with “The X-Files,” and Universal with “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Mummy.”
But there’s no question that the success of summer comedies, which can be cheaper to make, in the last few summers offered studios some of their biggest profits, like Universal’s “Knocked Up” and Sony’s “Superbad” last year.
Most distribs were surprised to realize the glut of gut-busters — and attributed it more to coincidence than anything else.
“I wish I could tell you it was part of some intelligent design, but it’s not,” says one top production executive of the comedy crop.
“It’s going to be challenging,” the executive adds. “There’s no question that the level of competition increases when you are going up against offerings in the same genre. The pieces of the pie get sliced thinner.”
Margins also narrow when a studio signs a top name or adds special effects. Last summer, Universal took plenty of heat for spending $170 million to produce the semi-sequel “Evan Almighty,” which ended up being a so-so performer.
This summer’s titles range from broad humor, to family laffers to special effects-laden titles. They star the biggest names in the biz, including Myers, Steve Carell, Cameron Diaz, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Seth Rogen.
With “Guru,” Paramount is hoping to mine the same sort of box office success that Myers’ enjoyed with the “Austin Powers” series.
Likewise, with the FX-heavy “Hancock,” a July 4 tentpole that stars Will Smith as a down-and-out superhero, Sony is hoping to replicate the success of the “Men in Black” franchise. “Hancock” also stars Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman.
On July 11, DreamWorks-Paramount will release the Stiller starrer “Tropic Thunder,” which Stiller also directed.
With help from Apatow, Sony is banking almost exclusively on comedy this summer. The studio kicks off on May 2 with the romantic comedy “Made of Honor,” toplining Michelle Monaghan and Patrick Dempsey.
Sony’s Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly starrer “Step Brothers” unspools July 25, while “Pineapple Express” opens Aug 8.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 22, Sony unspools Anna Faris laffer “I Know What Boys Like,” about a Playboy bunny who gets booted from Hugh Hefner’s mansion and takes a job as a sorority den mother.
The studio’s only non-comedy of the summer is the Clive Owen-Naomi Watts suspense drama “The International,” which opens Aug. 15.
New Line will offer two female-skewing summer comedies, “Sex and the City,” which reunites the cast of the HBO series, and the bigscreen adaptation of the best-selling self-help book “He’s Just Not That Into You,” starring Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Scarlett Johansson.
New Line also decided last week to open the Zac Efron comedy “Seventeen Again,” which is currently shooting, in August.
In addition to “Starship,” Fox has “What Happens in Vegas,” toplining Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. “Vegas” opens May 16, opposite “Prince Caspian” and Lionsgate’s horror actioner “Midnight Meat Train.” Fox is looking to replicate the kind of weekend it had in 2006, when it decided to counterprogram by opening “The Devil Wears Prada” on the same weekend as WB’s “Superman Returns.”
None of this is to say that studios are backing away from adventures, actioners and comic book superheroes.
The summer sked is chock full of such fare, including Robert Downey Jr. starrer “Iron Man,” which opens May 2, followed the next weekend by “Speed Racer,” the first directing outing for the Wachowski brothers since the “Matrix” trilogy.
U opens “Hulk,” which stars Edward Norton, on June 13. On June 27, Universal bows “Wanted” starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. McAvoy plays a unsatisfied office worker invited into a secret fraternity of assassins.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” bows July 18. One week later, Fox debuts “X-Files.”
In the action-adventure category, Disney releases “Narnia” on May 16.
The following week, Paramount releases “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” on May 22, nearly 20 years after the last movie in George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s franchise.
On July 11, New Line opens 3-D adventure “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D,” starring Brendan Fraser, who also appears Aug. 1 in U’s “Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”
Summer will offer three animated pics: DreamWorks Animation-Paramount’s “Kung Fu Panda” (June 6), Disney-Pixar’s “WALL-E” (June 27) and Fox’s “Space Chimps” (July 18).
For the female set, U opens bigscreen musical adaptation “Mamma Mia!” on July 18, while Warners bows “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” sequel on Aug. 8.