May box office may break records

'Iron,' 'Indy' could help month equal '07 tallies

Even without titan franchises “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Shrek,” the May box office has a shot at matching or outperforming May ’07.

This time around, there are more movies with more potential — even though they are mostly new and untested properties.

Last year, no studio wanted to be in the path of the three heavyweights — which each grossed north of $300 million domestically — so they saved their summer fare for June and beyond.

This May, there are four event films: Paramount’s “Iron Man” (May 2), Warner Bros.’ “Speed Racer” (May 9), Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” (May 16) and Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (May 22).

There also are two chick flicks, Sony’s “Made of Honor” (May 2) and “Sex and the City” (May 30) and Fox’s more broad comedy “What Happens in Vegas.”

Heading into summer ’07, the media said there were too many sequels and three-quels. This year, it’s the opposite. Only two of the May films are bona-fide sequels — “Prince Caspian” and “Crystal Skull,” with the Indiana Jones franchise returning to the bigscreen after nearly 20 years.

May has become increasingly important for studios.

It is the “launch pad for summer,” one distribution topper said. “Without great openings in May, the rest of the summer is typically softer. The more people who see trailers in May for movies that open in June, July and August, the better off the summer is.”

For studios, the question isn’t whether three of the May films can shoot past the $300 million mark domestically, as “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” ultimately did. The question is whether the product is strong enough as a whole to make up for the lack of the three mega-franchises.

“They all bring something to the table that a year ago didn’t exist,” another distribution chief said. “You are starting off with new titles. Usually, the first ones in are all sequels.”

Conventional wisdom is that “Iron Man,” “Prince Caspian” and “Crystal Skull” are strong contenders. “Speed Racer,” rated PG, may not open as big as the others but could have strong legs.

“What Happens in Vegas” and the two romantic comedies hope to work as counterprogramming. In summer 2006, Fox hit the jackpot with “The Devil Wears Prada,” which opened against “Superman Returns.”

In May 2007, the highest-grossing film after the three blockbuster three-quels was Fox Atomic’s “28 Weeks Later,” which made a mere $25.4 million in May after opening on May 11.

Studios are already trying to manage expectations, particularly Paramount with “Iron Man,” since it is the first summer tentpole.

Par, which is distributing the pic for Marvel Entertainment, has been furiously reminding reporters that “Iron Man” isn’t a sequel, meaning it is all but impossible for the film to open anywhere near the level of a “Spider-Man 3,” which debuted to a record-breaking $151.1 million over the May 4-6 weekend.

Toplining Robert Downey Jr., “Iron Man” is whipping up plenty of interest, particularly among males. Though the film doesn’t officially open until May 2, Paramount has decided to begin showing the movie the evening of May 1 in some markets to meet demand.

On May 16, Disney opens “Prince Caspian.” The first “Narnia” film, released Dec. 9, 2005, opened to $65.5 million on its way to grossing $291.7 million.

“Indiana Jones” bows on Thursday, May 22, on the eve of the Memorial Day holiday. How big the film opens could hinge on whether it can recruit younger generations to the action-adventure franchise after such a lengthy hiatus.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” released over Memorial Day weekend in 1989, grossed $197.2 million domestically.

The absence of “Pirates,” “Shrek” and “Spider-Man,” or some combination thereof, is a risky proposition for Hollywood. At the same time, it gives new franchises the chance to take root.

“There’s a lot of business that could happen at the box office,” Universal prexy of distribution Nikki Rocco said. “It’s always good when there’s high anticipation for something new and inventive. It’s what keeps moviegoers coming back.”

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