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'Indiana' will get us out of this

In bad times, escaping to the movies looks good. Hollywood has its fingers crossed for a big summer.

April 30, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

It costs more than $50 to fill the gas tank, home values are plummeting, good jobs are hard to come by, and the dollar's so weak that even a Canadian vacation seems beyond reach.

All together, it has the makings for a wonderful summer in Hollywood.

It's not that the film business wishes ill on anyone (besides restaurant hosts assigning bad tables, at least), but the economy's loss may very much be the studios' gain. Moviegoing historically has proved more than resistant to downturns -- theater attendance actually increased during three of the last four recessions. And this year, Hollywood hopes the downturn could kindle a near record-breaking May-to-September season.

"I think we have a really good shot of this summer's [box office] matching last summer," Mark Zoradi, president of Disney's motion picture group, said in reference to 2007's record summer haul of $4.18 billion. "I think it's really going to be that big."

As previous downturns in gross domestic product have proved, popular culture -- tracing back from the Depression-era hit song "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" -- can prosper when times are tough. If you're struggling to pay the bills, why not let Angelina Jolie take your worries away?

The movies-cure-all-ills formula seems to favor big-budget "event" films. Some of the most celebrated blockbusters of the last several decades -- "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Jaws" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" -- premiered in the midst or on the heels of a recession. In 2001, which had a recession from March to November, theater admissions climbed to $8.4 billion, from $7.7 billion in 2000, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

"If there's anything that's recession-proof, it's an event picture," said Jeff Blake, chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony Pictures.

Thanks to what studio executives and theater owners categorize as a wave of shoddy spring movies -- "88 Minutes," anyone? -- movie attendance this year is down about 6% from the same time a year ago, according to the tracking firm Media by Numbers.

But when "Iron Man" starts playing Thursday night, the box office doldrums are likely to vanish. Rival studios and box office prognosticators say the comic-book adaptation could gross more than $80 million in its first weekend. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which audience surveys show has astonishingly strong interest among children, probably will sell substantially more tickets when it opens May 22.

Though there is any number of problematic movies opening before Labor Day -- "Sex and the City," "Speed Racer," "The Happening" and "Meet Dave" are frequently mentioned around Hollywood as the summer's trickiest sales -- the quantity of potential hits seems greater than in years, studio executives say.

"It doesn't seem like the summer is going to run out of gas halfway through," Sony's Blake said. "There's an event movie every weekend."

It will take a number of runaway blockbusters to top 2007's summer mark, which was largely driven by massively popular sequels to well-established franchises. Four of last season's five highest-grossing films were new installments in the "Spider-Man," "Shrek," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Harry Potter" series (the other monster hit was "Transformers"). No fewer than 14 sequels premiered last summer. This year, Hollywood is offering seven sequels (including new installments in "The Mummy" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" series), as well as a host of comedies from familiar faces, including Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and Ben Stiller.

Instead of more than a dozen sequels this summer, the studios will try to launch new franchises. Where Sony had a new "Spider-Man" film last summer, this year it has Will Smith in "Hancock." DreamWorks will try to approach "Shrek the Third's" returns with "King Fu Panda." In place of "The Bourne Ultimatum," Universal will release "Wanted."

"I think it's a nice thing to have fresh, new and exciting movies with franchise potential," said Peter Brown, the chairman and chief executive of AMC Entertainment, which operates nearly 4,500 North American screens. He said too many sequels can leave audiences burned out. "People feel a little disappointed -- expectations get so high, and then they feel let down."

Even if they aren't releasing as many sequels this summer, the studios have grown increasingly focused on event films, movies such as "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" that not only carry an inherent, often family-friendly sales hook but also wield the potential to sell as many tickets overseas as in the U.S.

"The risk is that when you get [an event movie] wrong, it is a devastating blow to your financial plan," said Adam Fogelson, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Universal Pictures. "But when you hit it right, it can literally fund the entire company."

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