- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

LOS ANGELES

Summertime in Hollywood is not as hot as it looked at the beginning. While the three May blockbusters — Sony’s “Spider-Man 3,” DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek the Third” and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”— have combined for nearly $1 billion in domestic revenue, overall business and movie attendance are well below the record pace many show-business types expected.

In fact, attendance is running behind last summer’s and even has fallen below that of summer 2005, a year of box-office duds that had some analysts predicting audiences were abandoning movie houses in favor of home theaters and other entertainment options.

With studios offering a stronger late-season lineup than normal this year, attendance likely will pick up and lift Hollywood to a respectable summer. Still, early forecasts that Hollywood would have its first $4 billion summer look like wishful thinking.

Through last Sunday, the industry had pulled in $1.9 billion since the first weekend in May, according to box-office tracker Media by Numbers. About half of that came from the third “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates” flicks.

“You can’t have a summer’s fortunes riding on the backs of three films. I looked at these three films in May and said, ‘Oh, record summer,’ like everyone else did,” says Media by Numbers President Paul Dergarabedian. “Three or four big movies does not make for a record summer. ”

Modern Hollywood’s best summer for revenues came in 2004, when the industry took in $3.95 billion domestically for the entire season. Based on admission prices, which rise every year, the best summer for actual movie attendance was 2002, with 653 million tickets sold.

The industry is well behind both those records this summer. Through Sunday, 279 million tickets had been sold, compared with 315 million in 2002, according to Media by Numbers. This summer’s $1.9 billion in revenue is also shy of the record pace in 2004, when receipts were at $2.04 billion at this point.

Though revenues this season are ahead of the $1.8 billion pace during the snoozy summer of 2005, attendance is down 4 million.

The slow summer has not been for lack of hits. Along with the big-three blockbusters, Universal’s comedy “Knocked Up,” the Warner Bros. casino caper “Ocean’s Thirteen” and 20th Century Fox’s superhero saga “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” all have topped $100 million. Disney’s animated “Ratatouille” and Fox’s action tale “Live Free or Die Hard” both got off to solid starts this past weekend. And while there have been some underachievers, such as Universal’s comedy “Evan Almighty,” Sony’s animated “Surf’s Up” and the Warner Bros. mystery “Nancy Drew,” Hollywood has yet to deliver an outright bomb this summer.

Part of the shortfall results from overly high expectations for sequels, none of which so far has approached the returns of their franchises’ highest-grossing predecessors. “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “At World’s End” all will finish above $300 million but well below the $400 million-plus domestic gross of the best of their earlier installments.

To pessimists, that creates the two-sided perception of a $300-million blockbuster also being something of a disappointment. “When we start snubbing our noses at $300 million, that’s a problem,” says Chuck Viane, head of distribution at Disney.

Overseas, big Hollywood franchises are more than making up for lower grosses at home. “Spider-Man 3” is Sony’s biggest hit ever with nearly $900 billion worldwide. “At World’s End” has climbed beyond $900 million globally and will finish as No. 2 on Disney’s all-time hit list, behind the $1.05 billion haul of last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” “Shrek the Third” has rolled out more slowly overseas but is edging toward $600 million worldwide.

Studio cheerleaders say there’s also plenty of life left in the summer, starting with Paramount’s newly released sci-fi epic “Transformers.” Still to come are the sequels “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Rush Hour 3,” the Adam Sandler comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” the big-screen cartoon “The Simpsons Movie” and the musical “Hairspray.” That leaves Hollywood with at least one big new movie every weekend through mid-August.

“I’m not trying to be Pollyannish, but I think the second beginning of summer is right around the corner,” says Mr. Viane from Disney, which closes out its summer with the live-action and computer-animation adventure “Underdog” in August. “There’s so many good movies coming. You’ve got to let summer run its course. We may just have loaded all the stuff the public wants in the back end.”

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