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Studios look to top 2007 box office

Summer crowded with big comedies, actioners

Theater owners and Hollywood will have plenty to toast when rendezvousing this week in Las Vegas for exhib confab ShoWest: The 2007 domestic box office was the best on record, digital 3-D is beginning to take on dimension, and moviegoers didn’t revolt over higher ticket prices.

That doesn’t mean exhibitors think studios couldn’t be rolling the dice a little differently.

One bet theaters owners would like to see the majors make is to go to year-round programming, versus jamming nearly all the commercial tentpoles into the summer months.

“We got some really good movies in 2007, and we are very appreciative,” says National Assn. of Theater Owners president John Fithian. “There were movies in multiple genres that appealed to different demos. But the spacing and distribution pattern of the movies could have been better.

“We took too many of the highest-grossing popcorn movies and put them in the summer,” Fithian continues. “Conversely, we took too many of the serious, intellectual movies and put them in the fall, so we didn’t maximize our returns.”

If summer 2007 was crowded, the decibel level will be even louder in summer 2008.

Roughly speaking, there are 25 major releases, compared with 18 last year. That means each weekend could see two big film openings, although in many cases these films target somewhat different auds.

But not always.

Consider this: On June 20, Warner Bros. opens Steve Carell/Anne Hathaway starrer “Get Smart” while Paramount opens Mike Myers topliner “The Love Guru.”

So far, neither studio is budging. And, at this point, where would they go that’s any better, at least during the summer?

Studios seems to be willing to risk cannibalization in order to open in the summer, considering that’s when kids are out of school for a blessedly long stretch of time. They also say that summer 2007 didn’t seem to suffer for having more releases than ever.

“Yes, there are too many movies today,”

Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman says. “And yes, you are bumping into each other constantly, but we have learned that the B.O. can expand. There’s no better proof than last summer.”

Summer 2007 racked up $4.1 billion in box office receipts, up 8% from the summer before. Heading into the season, many pundits had predicted that the market wouldn’t be able to handle so many big titles, but they were proved wrong.

The three tentpoles unspooling in May 2007 — “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” — each grossed more than $300 million domestically. So did DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Transformers,” which opened in July. A number of other pictures also scored big.

But then came the fall, and a flood of serious-minded specialty pictures, including a glut of movies about the Iraqi war and post 9/11 geopolitics. The box office began a troubling descent, noticeably down from fall 2006 levels.

The return of more mainstream, commercial fare around the holidays — including Disney’s “Enchanted,” 20th Century Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and Warners’ Will Smith blockbuster “I Am Legend” — restored luster to the wickets.

All in all, the 2007 box office was up 5% over 2006, while admissions were up 1%.

So far this year, the B.O. is running 9% ahead of the same frame in 2007, fueled by the continued success of “Legend” and “Alvin” along with a solid crop of 2008 films, including “Juno,” the highest-performing specialty pic in six years.

March will bring two event films looking to mine the Easter holiday stretch. Last Friday, Warner Bros. opened Roland Emmerich’s “10,000 B.C.” This coming Friday, 20th opens Easter release “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!”

Outside of these two movies, however, there’s no other tentpole until summer, although there are a number of comedies and medium-sized titles that could rack up B.O. coin. That’s just the tradition.

Fithian says it’s a tradition that needs rethinking.

“Look at April 2007. It was abysmal. There were no big releases. ‘Disturbia’s’ not a bad little picture, but it stayed No. 1 three weeks in a row,” Fithian observes.

“What is it about May that we couldn’t do in April? I’ve had this conversation with the senior studio execs and keep begging them to put at least one picture in April,” Fithian adds.

Execs say that other parts of the year, such as April or September and October, are a time for studio distribution and marketing to catch their breath.

It’s true that they risk cannibalization by crowding so many films into the summer, but last summer did nevertheless prove that the market is capable of expanding.

The pressure on opening weekend, however, becomes greater than ever.

“If you have the goods, you just have to go with it,” says Disney distrib chief Chuck Viane.

Recently, Fithian and NATO applauded Jeffrey Katzenberg for moving up the release of DreamWorks Animation’s 3-D toon “Monsters vs. Aliens” from May 2009 to March 27, 2009 in order to get out of the way of 20th’s live-action 3-D actioner “Avatar,” from director James Cameron. (“Avatar” was subsequently relocated to December 2009).

At the time, Katzenberg quipped that with the release of “Monsters,” summer will officially start in late March, versus May.

“Maybe he’s right,” Fithian said. “If so, it would be very advantageous for theater owners.”

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