The star of Hollywood's 2006 box-office recovery: the sequel.
Led by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Ice Age: The Meltdown," grosses in the U.S. and Canada are poised this week to overtake the $8.9 billion in receipts for all of 2005.
Six of the year's 12 biggest movies were sequels. Successors to previous hits grossed $2 billion, some 40% more than they did last year.
"While nothing is a slam dunk in this business," said Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, "at least going in there's a comfort level knowing that audiences have embraced these characters and the worlds that have been created."
And get ready for more. The next few months are shaping up as an arms race of sequels, with studios rolling out new versions of some of their biggest all-time blockbusters.
Coming in May will be the third installments of the "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, with another likely hit, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," following in July.
Those films are among 19 sequels scheduled for 2007. Also on deck: "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," "Ocean's Thirteen," "Evan Almighty" and "National Treasure II: The Book of Secrets."
Although 2006 won't be a record -- which was set in 2004 with nearly $9.5 billion in box-office sales -- the sequel-driven rebound is all but erasing the angst of last year, when Hollywood executives lost sleep over the steepest attendance drop in 20 years and the third down year in a row at the box office.
"Next year, there's a greater concentration of known, commercially viable movies than we've ever seen before," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, a trade group. "That should be significant closure to the debate on the life expectancy of the cinema business."
Some blamed the 2005 slump on bad movies. But pundits also speculated that a more permanent change was taking place. They said that home theater systems, the Internet, video games and other diversions were siphoning people away from the multiplexes, where they endure crowds, pricey concessions and annoyances such as ringing cellphones.
Several uninspiring sequels, such as "The Legend of Zorro," "Transporter 2" and "XXX: State of the Union," failed to lure large crowds in 2005. Critics speculated that moviegoers were tiring of seeing recycled characters and ideas.
"When you make a good sequel, people go," said Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal, who oversees the "Spider-Man" series. "When you make a sequel that's not good, it shows."
This year, audiences found Hollywood's selection of sequels far more appealing. The second installment of the "Pirates" series set an all-time opening weekend record this summer.
It doesn't hurt that star Johnny Depp has emerged as one of the world's biggest box-office draws. Depp has enthusiastically embraced his popular Capt. Jack Sparrow character, and will be seen next summer in his third stint as the drunken buccaneer. "He loves the character," producer Jerry Bruckheimer said.
Not every successful sequel has to have the size and budget of a "Pirates." Some of the biggest returns on investment this year came from lower-budget films such as "Jackass: Number Two" and "Saw III." Next year's lineup includes "The Hills Have Eyes II," "Resident Evil 3," "Hostel 2" and "Saw IV."
But big sequels usually cost plenty. Production and marketing outlays on a single title can total more than $400 million. Studios will spend more than $1 billion next year to make and market three films: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third."
"There's always an upward cost pressure for any sequel," said Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros., home to the "Harry Potter" series. "But on the benefit side, there's an immediate audience awareness for sequels, which helps us break through the competitive clutter on opening weekend."
Costs have soared so much that even some big box-office performers don't make a profit, studios assert.
This summer's "Mission: Impossible III" grossed nearly $400 million worldwide, earning star Tom Cruise about $80 million. But the film's backer, Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, says it will only break even given the movie's high production and marketing costs.
One reason budgets rise so much is that producers crank up the special effects, under pressure to create a fresh spectacle that outdoes the earlier films.
"We always try to top ourselves and there's a cost attached to that," said Laura Ziskin, producer of the special effects-laden "Spider-Man" films.
Studios also usually end up paying higher salaries to keep their original stars on board. Because filmmakers are eager for them to revive their roles, stars enjoy more leverage in negotiating their paychecks. At 17, "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe's paycheck has been steadily rising with each film to where it is now reportedly $14 million.