NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
He's still got lightning speed, Herculean strength and an uncanny ability to stick to walls.
But the real adventure as far as the movie industry is concerned will be whether Spider-Man can out-muscle a young wizard named Harry and give Sony Pictures the lift it needs to take the top spot at the box office this year.
Industry experts say it will take a giant lift but if anyone has a shot at it, it's Spidey.
Halfway through 2004, Warner Bros. is well ahead of the competition with nearly $710 million in domestic ticket sales.
That's due largely to Harry Potter's magic, Brad Pitt's overseas sex appeal and a penchant for churning out more movies than its rivals.
Overall, Hollywood has pulled in $4.5 billion at U.S. box offices this year, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, a site that tracks the movie industry, putting it on course to meet last year's $9.1 billion in ticket sales but shy of the record $10.3 billion set in 2002.
If two words can sum up analysts' overall reaction to this year in movies, "strange" and "blah" do the trick.
The highest of highs, lowest of lows
Strange because Walt Disney Co. is typically duking it out with Sony and Warner Bros. for the top spot. Warner Bros., like CNN/Money, is owned by Time Warner (TWX: up $0.17 to $17.40, Research, Estimates).
Strange too because No. 5 on the mid-year ranking is an upstart distributor with one hit. And strange in that the spectacular success of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ" could signal a shift by major movie studios toward funding indie films, the more controversial the topic the better.
"Generally speaking, 2004 has so far been a mixed bag," said Brandon Gray, the editor and publisher of BoxOfficeMojo.com. "This year we've seen the highest of the highs and some very low lows."
Among the highs: DreamWorks ended a lengthy drought with the May release of "Shrek 2," 20th Century Fox surged from No. 5 in mid-June to No. 2 with a trio of solid successes, including "Dodgeball" and "The Day After Tomorrow."
As for lows, look no further than Disney, which has fallen from the overall leader at the box office last year to No. 6 so far in 2004, with no real blockbusters in sight.
Spiderman takes on Harry
Just how the rankings shake out at the end of the second half rests on Spidey's sinewy shoulders.
With estimates of U.S. box office receipts approaching $400 million and higher, "Spider-Man-2," which opens in theaters Wednesday, could give the industry the bump it needs to post a record. He could also lift Sony Pictures, a unit of Japan's Sony Corp. (SNE: Research, Estimates), to the No. 1 spot by year-end.
|With ticket prices higher and a boost from Spidey, movie industry has a shot at a record year.
Sony so far has hauled in $503 million this year, counting eight new releases and spillover sales from five flocks from last year, among them "Something's Gotta Give" and "Mona Lisa Smile."
When it comes to the year-to-date rankings, "all bets are off on Wednesday," predicted Robert Bucksbaum, the president of Los Angeles-based box office data company ReelSource and himself a small theater owner.
Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com says Sony will pass Warner Bros. in July but expects the rankings to flip flop again.
Here's why: Neither Warner Bros. nor Sony have any mega-hits remaining in their arsenals.
In fact, factor out "Spider-Man 2" and Sony has had a fairly anemic lineup all year long. "50 First Dates," which brought in $121 million in U.S. ticket sales, has been Sony's only top performer in 2004. Warner Bros. on the other hand, is benefiting from a few hits and a shotgun approach to movie-making.
"Warner Bros. is releasing a bunch of movies and hoping a number of them stick," explained Gray of BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Even with a number of coming attractions that analysts say will likely disappoint -- among them "Catwoman" and "Alexander" -- volume alone should help Warner Bros. cast off Spider-Man's web.
A battle for the bronze
Meanwhile, DreamWorks, which broke a lengthy drought with "Shrek 2," and 20th Century Fox, with its unexpected surge, are expected to duke it out for the No. 3 spot. One obvious exit from the top rankings will be current No. 5 Newmarket, also known for "Whale Rider" and "Monster." But as box office returns from "The Passion" slow to a trickle, Newmarket may not finish the year in the Top 10.
The other clear loser, both in market share and the bottom-line, is Burbank, Calif.-based Disney (DIS: up $0.25 to $25.49, Research, Estimates). After a triumphant 2003 in which Disney posted the top finish in U.S. box office receipts, the studio has stumbled badly in 2004 with a series of duds, among them "The Alamo" and "Around the World in 80 Days." According to Bucksbaum of ReelSource, Disney is averaging about $22.3 million per movie this year, down from roughly $75 million per film at this point last year.
And with two summer bets remaining -- "King Arthur" next week and "The Village" later this month -- and middling expectations for "The Incredibles," the second-to-last feature film due out in partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, analysts have all but written Disney off in 2004.
Long-term, they don't sound all that worried about Disney. "There is no sugar-coating Disney's disaster thus far in 2004," said David Mumpower of BoxOfficeProphets.com. "The power of Disney that even their harshest critics must begrudge them is that they are never down for long," said Mumpower.