Scouting summer’s sleeper surprises

A number of pics look ready to breakout and lead the pack

Though the successful tentpoles nab the biggest headlines, sleeper hits can pad a studio’s bottom line just as nicely.

Lower-budget high-performers from summers past — like Sony’s Jaden Smith vehicle “The Karate Kid” and Warner Bros.’ “The Hangover” — pose far less risk than the flashy tentpoles that typically cost $100 million-$150 million and upward to produce.

“It looks like a great summer chockfull of classic counterprogramming,” says Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony. “It should clear the blues that people have been feeling at the box office this winter.”

The rising mercury brings a wave of comedies looking for breakout status. First out of the gate on April 8 is David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness,” an unlikely period/stoner hybrid starring Danny McBride, James Franco and a post-Oscar Natalie Portman. The film faces some overlap competition, though, when it opens against another laffer, Warners’ remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore classic “Arthur.” But buoyed by a buzzed-about red-band trailer, “Your Highness” is expected to reverse Universal’s comedy woes from last summer when “MacGruber” and “Get Him to the Greek” underperformed.

The studio also has high hopes for the Judd Apatow-produced R-rated laffer “Bridesmaids,” which bows May 13. The Kristen Wiig starrer promises all the raunch of “The Hangover” but with a female-led cast. It also beats “The Hangover 2” to the multiplex by two weeks.

Bruer says Sony’s June 24 release “Bad Teacher,” starring Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, gives the studio a great shot at a sleeper champ, especially overseas where Diaz and Timberlake are known for their tireless publicity efforts. “People will laugh until they throw up,” he insists about the film that opens against mega-sequel “Cars 2.” “It’s a great irreverent romp. And it’s something that everyone in the family is going to be in agreement about seeing.”

Sony also brings a seemingly can’t-miss formula to bigscreen with July 8’s “Zookeeper,” which features star Kevin James + producer Adam Sandler + animals. But the comedy will face a formidable challenge that same weekend from another laffer, Warners’ “Horrible Bosses,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman.

Paramount’s January comedy “No Strings Attached” already proved that audiences are game for commitment-free sex. Sony will now test those same waters with the Timberlake-Mila Kunis vehicle “Friends With Benefits” on July 22.

The Aug. 5 frame finds yet another wide-release comedy looking to lure chuckles-chasing moviegoers: Universal’s Bateman-Ryan Reynolds starrer “The Change-Up.” One week later, Sony brings Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” follow-up to theaters with the Jesse Eisenberg-led action comedy “30 Minutes or Less.” The film follows in the same vein as Sony’s previous late-summer sleeper hit, “Pineapple Express.”

Still, even counterprogramming needs some counterprogramming. This season’s steady stream of comedies will be broken up by a number of promising pics aimed at an older demo.

“The movie-going audience deserves a choice,” says Richie Fay, president of domestic theatrical distribution at Summit. “An older, more mature audience is looking for smart, mature fare.”

Summit, which opened “The Hurt Locker” two years ago in the summer, has several warm-weather titles that should appeal to the post-collegiate crowd including the Jodie Foster-helmed Mel Gibson starrer “The Beaver,” which the studio will open in a platform pattern beginning May 6.

Focus’ assassin thriller “Hanna” — starring Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan — will likely attract similar auds when it opens April 8, as will Fox’s period drama “Water for Elephants” (though that title will benefit from some unlikely tweener interest thanks to star Robert Pattinson).

Universal brings together major star power with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts for the adult-skewing midlife-crisis dramedy “Larry Crowne,” which Hanks directed. The pic, which Hanks penned with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s” Nia Vardalos, opens July 1 as an alternative to Par’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Disney also has high hopes for period Southern drama “The Help,” based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, which is looking to capture a late-summer following when it bows Aug. 12.

Meanwhile, Christian-minded auds, often a formidable presence at the multiplex as evidenced by the success of “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” will find an appealing title in the Roland Joffe-helmed drama “There Be Dragons.” Samuel Goldwyn Films opens the pic, which chronicles the life of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, on May 6.

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