X marks the spot at the box office
The success of 'X-Men: The Last Stand' raises hopes that this summer will be a big one for Hollywood. Next up: 'Cars' and 'Superman Returns.'
By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Hollywood executives must be breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Mutants, the Mona Lisa and animated squirrels helped lift the box office in the past two weeks, following an inauspicious start to the pivotal summer movie season.

Many movie industry analysts expect the latest Pixar/Disney film
Many movie industry analysts expect the latest Pixar/Disney film "Cars" to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hits of the summer.
Let's all go to the movies: Shares of theater chain Regal Entertainment have gained ground this year as the summer box office starts to heat up,
Let's all go to the movies: Shares of theater chain Regal Entertainment have gained ground this year as the summer box office starts to heat up,
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Earlier this month, "Mission: Impossible: III" failed to live up to lofty expectations. And "Poseidon," much like the titular ship, sank quickly in theaters. That was bad news considering that most industry experts were predicting a stronger summer than last year.

But people don't seem to be as worried anymore.

"The Da Vinci Code" defied controversy and tepid critical reviews to generate a better-than-expected $77 million in U.S. ticket sales and about $225 million worldwide in its first weekend, according to figures from Box Office Mojo, a movie industry research firm. That's a welcome boost to Sony (Research), which released the film.

"Over the Hedge," the latest computer generated cartoon from DreamWorks Animation (Research), also had a strong debut.

And over the Memorial Day weekend, "X-Men: The Last Stand," the third film based on the popular comic book series, opened with a whopping $120.1 million over the long weekend.

"The month of May at the box office came in like a lamb and is going out like a lion," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, a movie industry research site.

'Cars' should rev up big $

Looking ahead to June, there is a good chance that the summer box office will continue to heat up.

"The jury is still out, but things look more encouraging," said Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Janco Partners who follows movie theater chain Regal Entertainment (Research). "People are feeling better and the box office is up about 6 percent year-to-date."

Dennis McAlpine, an independent entertainment analyst, said that there are two sure-fire hits coming out in June: "Cars" and "Superman Returns."

"Cars," the latest animated movie from Pixar, which is now owned by its longtime partner Walt Disney (Research), comes out June 9. And "Superman Returns," the first movie about the Man of Steel in nearly twenty years, will be released June 30. ("Superman Returns and "Poseidon" were both produced by Warner Bros., which like CNNMoney.com, is owned by Time Warner (Research).)

Harrigan agrees that these two flicks should be hits. He said he finds it hard to imagine "Cars" generating anything less than $250 million in U.S. box office sales and adds that another Disney film for later in the summer, July's "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel should also pull in at least $250 million.

But Pandya thinks there could be some potential sleeper hits as well. He points out that June is heavy on comedies. Last summer, "Wedding Crashers" was a surprise smash, generating nearly $210 million in ticket sales

Pandya said he doubts any of this summer's comedies will approach that level of box office. But he said that "The Break-Up," which comes out June 2, could do well since people might be curious to watch stars Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan, who are now dating, interact on the screen.

That formula worked last year with "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which starred Aniston's ex, Brad Pitt, and his current girlfriend, Angelina Jolie.

Comedies and horror could be summer sleepers

Both Pandya and McAlpine said that "Click," a comedy starring Adam Sandler which comes out June 23, also has the chance to be a pretty big hit.

"'Click' is Adam Sandler and he's comedy gold. Pretty much all his mainstream comedies are blockbusters and I don't think this will be any different," said Pandya.

There's also "Nacho Libre," due out June 16. That movie stars Jack Black as a cook in the orphanage of a Mexican monastery who becomes a wrestler in order to save the orphanage. Pandya and McAlpine said the movie may have niche appeal, mainly to teens and young males, but that it probably won't be a major hit.

Pandya said that a remake of the horror film "The Omen" could also be a box-office surprise. Horror movies have tended to do well during the past few years even as the overall box office has slumped.

What's more, Pandya said the movie may benefit from a quirky opening date of June 6 (6/6/06, get it?) and the fact that trailers for the movie were shown before "X-Men" this past weekend. Both "The Omen" and "X-Men" were produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox, a subsidiary of News Corp (Research).

So at the end of the day, all the talk about the death of the movie theater may be exaggerated.

Harrigan said that last year people were blaming high movie ticket prices and the fact that DVDs were being released only a few months after a movie hit theaters as reasons for the silver screen's slump. But he said there was a bigger factor.

"A lot of the problem last year was you had some poor movies," he said.

McAlpine agreed. He said there's a relatively simple way to get people to come to the multiplexes: make movies that people actually want to see.

"The 'X-Men' numbers show that people still want to go to movies as long as it's the right movie. But that's always been the case," said McAlpine.


For more about how Pixar may shake up Disney's animated studio, click here.

NASCAR goes Hollywood. Click here.

Comic book company Marvel wants to make its own movies. Click here.

Analysts quoted in this story do not own shares of the companies mentioned and their firms have no banking ties to the companies.

The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

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