"Super" summer for the silver screen?
There should be some blockbuster movies this summer, including the return of the Man of Steel. But can they end Hollywood's slump?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Hollywood hit a well-documented rough patch last year, with annual box office receipts declining for the first time since 1991. But so far in 2006, there's some good news.
According to figures from Exhibitor Relations Co., a movie industry research firm, box office grosses in the U.S. are up -- albeit less than 1 percent -- through March 26.
The bad news, however, is that the box office bump is due entirely to ticket price increases as opposed to more people actually wanting to see movies; attendance is down 2.2 percent from a year ago. In fact, the number of ticket sales has declined for the past three years straight according to Box Office Mojo, another movie industry research firm.
So, with the big studios ready to start unleashing the summer blockbusters in a little more than a month from now – "Mission: Impossible III" opens on May 5 – will there be enough hit flicks to get people to swarm back to the multiplexes and reverse the slide of the past few years?
Hopes are high (then again they always are in Tinseltown) for a box office and attendance upswing this year. And there is reason to think that this summer could be a bonanza for Hollywood.
Sony (Research) appears to have a surefire hit on its hands with the film version of the runaway best selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code." Walt Disney (Research) hopes to replicate the success it had in 2003, when it released Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, with the latest Pixar film "Cars" and the sequel to "Pirates."
Other sequels that could be fan favorites are "X-Men: The Last Stand" from News Corp.'s (Research) Fox and the long-awaited "Superman Returns" from Time Warner's (Research) Warner Bros. studio. (Time Warner also owns CNNMoney.com.)
"This summer should beat last summer. The lineup is better. Studios are returning to their bread and butter, which are sequels. Last summer there were a lot of remakes that didn't excite audiences," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, another movie industry research firm.
There is the potential for some sleeper hits as well.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co, said one such contender is "Snakes on a Plane," a movie that's exactly what you'd expect it to be about. Samuel L. Jackson stars as a passenger on a plane full of deadly snakes. (We are not making this up.) The movie, to be released by Time Warner's New Line studio, has already attracted a lot of buzz on various movie blogs.
He said another wildcard is Mel Gibson's new movie. His follow-up to "The Passion of the Christ" is another film that, at first blush, doesn't seem like blockbuster material. It is called "Apocalypto" and is being billed as an action-adventure film about the end of the Mayan empire. Like "Passion" it will feature subtitles; the cast of "Apocalypto" will be speaking in a Mayan dialect known as Yucatec.
Pandya said "Click," a comedy starring Adam Sandler about a guy who discovers a remote control that allows him to fast forward and rewind to certain times in his life, should stand out among all the big action movies.
Dergarabedian added that "Lady in the Water," the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote and directed "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs," could be a hit. But Shyamalan's last movie, "The Village" did not live up to expectations.
Finally, he said it will be interesting to see if audiences are ready to see movies about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Two will come out this year. "United 93," about the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, is due out in late April and the Oliver Stone-directed "World Trade Center' will be released in August.
With all that in mind, Marla Backer, a media and entertainment analyst with Soleil -- Research Associates, an independent research firm, wrote in a report Friday that she thinks box office grosses from May through early August should be up 12 percent to 15 percent from the same period last year.
Still, if you rewind to this time last year, it was hard to imagine how the summer of 2005 could disappoint. After all, there was the last installment of the "Star Wars" saga due out, as well as "War of the Worlds" and "Batman Begins" to look forward to. And to be sure, those three movies did fare well at the box office. There were some surprise smash hits as well such as "Wedding Crashers" and the documentary "March of the Penguins." But this wasn't enough to get people to make a beeline for the theaters.
"This summer looks very promising. But cautiously, we say every year that summer looks good," said Dergarabedian.
Industry experts have cited many reasons for the downturn in attendance. Rising prices for tickets and at the concession stand may alienate some moviegoers as do the growing number of commercials -- ads that you can't just skip with a TiVo -- that air before movies start.
There's also the fact that movies are increasingly being released to the DVD format more quickly...so many film fans are willing to wait and watch movies in the comfort of their own home instead of trekking to the local theater.
Younger people have more entertainment options these days -- they can listen to their iPods, chat away on MySpace and play games on their Xbox 360. And finally, some argue that a slew of mediocre movies are keeping people away from theaters.
But what is certain is that a box office recovery is sorely needed for Hollywood. It would be welcome news to the big media companies, most of which have seen their stock prices stagnate during the past year. It could also serve as a boost for publicly traded theater owners Regal Entertainment (Research) and Carmike Cinemas (Research), whose stocks are also in the doldrums.
If attendance does bounce back this summer, it could dispel the notion that the age of releasing movies to theaters is drawing to a close. If not, it could cause more concerns in Hollywood and on Wall Street.
"This is a key summer and year. You could call 2005 an anomaly, but if there is a similar slump this year then it's no longer the anomaly. It's the norm," said Dergarabedian.
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