Spidey, an ogre and pirates: Who wins?

A big box office battle is brewing with 3 of the most widely awaited movies in years coming out soon.

By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- They say that good things come in threes. And film fans are hoping this proves triply true in May when a trio of movies hit theaters - each the third installment in a wildly popular series.

"Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" all come out in May. Industry experts have raved about the potential for these three films to kick-start a big summer movie season and possibly a record year for Hollywood.

The third installment of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" series is expected to rake in big box office doubloons. But can Johnny Depp top last year's opening weekend record?
"Spider-Man 3" may have an advantage over its two key box office competitors since it will kick off the summer popcorn movie season on May 4.
"Shrek the Third" is expected to be a huge hit with kids but can the big green ogre overtake Peter Parker and Jack Sparrow for the box office crown?

The third Spidey movie comes out on May 4, the latest Shrek adventure will be released on May 18 and the third and supposedly last "Pirates" film sails onto the silver screen on May 25.

"It's a very unique situation. I've never seen this much box office power all at the same time," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers, an industry tracking firm. "It's so unusual to have three huge franchises with their third installment coming out all within three weeks of each other."

It's worth noting that when "Spider-Man" and "Shrek" went head to head in 2004, the movies were not released so close together. "Shrek 2" came out on May 19 while "Spider-Man 2" hit theaters June 30.

Still, expectations for all three movies are high given how successful the previous films in each franchise have done. As such, several entertainment companies have a lot riding on the performance of these movies.

The first "Spider-Man" movie, based on the comic book from Marvel Entertainment (Charts) and released by Sony's (Charts) Columbia Pictures in 2002, took in a whopping $404 million in U.S. ticket sales, according to figures from movie research firm Box Office Mojo.

The movie sold some $115 million worth of tickets in its debut weekend - a record at the time. "Spider-Man 2," which came out in 2004, failed to top the original but still spun box office gold, grossing $374 million.

The first "Shrek" grossed nearly $268 million in 2001. And the sequel, "Shrek 2," topped "Spider-Man 2" as the highest-grossing film of 2004, with $441 million in ticket sales. DreamWorks Animation (Charts) produced all three movies and "Shrek the Third" is being distributed by Viacom's (Charts) Paramount Pictures.

Then there's Walt Disney's (Charts) "Pirates." The first film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was a surprise hit in 2003 - few expected a movie based on a theme park ride to do so well.

But the movie went on to gross $305 million at the box office and even snagged star Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his bizarre performance as Jack Sparrow.

Last year's sequel, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," raked in even more treasure, grossing $423 million. And the movie's opening weekend take of $135 million or so broke "Spider-Man's" record.

But will cinema junkies have an appetite for all three films in such a short period of time? The studios behind the movies are already jockeying for position, trying to drum up interest in the sequels.

A long trailer for "Spider-Man 3" appeared during a commercial break on NBC's comic book-inspired hit "Heroes" while a sneak peek of the new "Shrek" aired during an episode of Fox's "American Idol" last month. And a high-definition trailer of "Pirates" debuted on Yahoo! (Charts) this week.

Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source, a box office tracking firm based in Los Angeles, said that even though the three movies are coming out relatively close to one another, there will probably be enough money to go around to make them all huge hits.

"This has never happened before and probably won't happen again. All three will probably easily do over $300 million domestically. There is so much buzz about them," he said.

Bucksbaum predicts that "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates" will wind up grossing close to $400 million and that "Shrek the Third" will lag behind a bit. But all three movies should make a killing overseas, he added.

To that end, "Spider-Man 2" grossed $410 million outside the U.S., "Shrek 2" took in $479 million and last year's "Pirates" generated a stunning $642 million in foreign ticket sales.