Theaters deal with glut of new films

Sequels, tentpoles crowd release schedule

They’ll be no coming up for air at the summer box office, at least not right away. There’s also no escaping sequels, spinoffs and relaunches.

May is chocablock with franchise tentpoles — 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” opens May 1, followed by Paramount’s “Star Trek” relaunch the next weekend.

Sony follows on May 15 with “The Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels and Demons.” Memorial Day weekend offers two tentpoles — Warner Bros.’ “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins” and Fox’s “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”

As studios parade their summer slates at ShoWest, some theater owners are sure to complain that Hollywood majors are once again bunching too many movies too close together, particularly in the May corridor. The danger? Films don’t have any elbow room, and leave money on the table.

In 2006, “The Da Vinci Code” opened to $77 million in mid-May. The next weekend, it fell 56% to $34 million when going up against the launch of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which debuted with $102 million.

Studios argue that event tentpoles often see big second weekend declines, with or without competition. Rather, when a movie opens north of $100 million, it’s bound to fall hard. Their argument isn’t entirely without merit.

The summer of 2007 was famous for this phenomenon. “Spider-Man 3” opened to $151 million (a record at that point) in early May. It fell 62% the next weekend to $58 million, even though it had no direct competition. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” opened to $114 two weeks later. The following weekend, it declined 61% to $44 million, even though it had the playing field largely to itself in terms of being the only tentpole.

But that’s not enough to convince exhibitors that less can be more.

Last summer, “Iron Man” kicked off the summer season when it debuted to $102 million. On its second outing, the pic fell only 50% to $51 million. That was the same weekend that actioner “Speed Racer” bowed to poor results, grossing just $18 million. That film’s underperformance likely helped “Iron Man” keep its foothold.

Likewise, “The Dark Knight” fell only 54% last summer in its soph sesh. The Batman sequel debuted to $158 million over the July 18-20 weekend. There was nothing special about that weekend. In fact, it’s not a frame that usually sees a big opening such as “Dark Knight.” But as May and the summer holidays (Memorial Day, July 4) become too crowded, studios have been forced to take other dates.

In 2007, Warners decided to open “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” on July 11. The franchise is so well-known that Warners didn’t need to worry about getting an audience. That move paved the way for the studio to open “Dark Knight” around the same time in 2008.

This summer, Warners is opening “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” on July 17.

Theater circuits always like it when the wealth is spread around. The surprising strength of the box office so far this year has shown that movies can play well beyond their opening weekend — think “Taken” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”

Summer 2009 could have a big advantage in that it’s heavily populated with sequels, or franchise relaunches (“Star Trek,” “Terminator”). Franchise installments include “Wolverine,” “Angels and Demons,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

In 2007, “Transformers” opened to $70 million on its way to cuming $319 million domestically. Sequel reunites director Michael Bay with stars Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. Steven Spielberg also returns as exec producer.

One of the bigger gambles of the summer is Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” If the pic works, Par could have a new franchise. The studio is strategically opening the movie Aug. 7, outside of the crowded July 4 period where “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (June 26), “Public Enemies” (July 1) and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” (July 1) sit.

There’s no shortage of family event pics on the summer calendar, beginning with “Battle of the Smithsonian.” The original “Night at the Museum” opened over the Christmas holiday in 2006; film’s domestic cume was $250 million. It was such a hit that Fox has decided to open the sequel in summer, when kids are out of school for a longer period of time.

However, “Battle of the Smithsonian” could find itself facing off with Disney/Pixar’s “Up,” which opens one week after “Battle of the Smithsonian” on May 29. Presumably, “Battle of the Smithsonian” could draw a broader audience, but Pixar films are no slouches when it comes to attracting adults sans kids.

Two weeks after “Up” debuts, Universal goes out in theaters with Will Ferrell family adventure “Land of the Lost,” based on the 1970s kids TV show.

“Ice Age,” with its July 1 opening and long holiday weekend, arguably has more breathing room than the cluster of family titles opening in May.

Throughout the summer, event pics will look to carve out their fair share of the audience, in addition to scoring huge opening grosses. That’s the key to surviving another summer that looks like anything but a drought.