The movie industry kicks off its lucrative and high-stakes summer season today with Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" in the leadoff position.
Although May is always a jampacked month at theaters, Hollywood is pushing the envelope this year with five "tent poles," all of which are sequels or spin-offs budgeted at well over $100 million, set to open by Memorial Day weekend. Last year the number was four and in 2007 it was three.
The increasingly crowded box office doesn't necessarily mean there will be any flops. All five of May's big-budget releases -- "Wolverine," "Star Trek," "Angels and Demons," "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" and "Terminator Salvation" -- are tracking solidly, according to studio executives who have access to pre-release audience polling, with openings of well over $50 million expected. It's unlikely there will be any disasters along the lines of last year's "Speed Racer."
On the other hand, with one new potential blockbuster -- two over Memorial Day -- opening every week, these movies won't have much time to prove themselves before they're pushed off of marquees and out of audience's minds.
"You're probably not going to see one $500-million winner like you did last summer," said Kevin Goetz, president of the worldwide motion picture group for research firm OTX, referring to "The Dark Knight," which grossed $533 million. "You're going to see more of the wealth spread around, and I don't think there's a real dog out there."
The only May movie looking likely to have a huge launch -- measured these days by breaking the $100-million mark -- is Fox's "Night at the Museum" sequel, which opens May 22 and is tracking strongly with families.
Most of the month's lineup of major releases have profiles like "Wolverine," which appears to be heading toward a solid but not spectacular opening around $85 million. That would require it to perform decently well for another couple of weeks to be deemed a success.
Co-financed by Fox and private equity fund Dune Entertainment, "Wolverine" had a budget of $130 million, according to the studio, although several sources close to the production pegged it at more than $140 million.
Along with swine flu concerns, which so far haven't affected U.S. film attendance, Fox is uncertain about the effect of a nearly finished version of "Wolverine" that leaked onto the Internet last month.
"If we do $70 million or above, that's going to be fantastic, but if there weren't all these other factors, I'd be a bit higher," said Chris Aronson, Fox's senior vice president of domestic distribution.
Like most of the summer's big pictures, "Wolverine" will open simultaneously in every major foreign market with the exception of Japan, India and Mexico, the latter because of the swine flu outbreak. Overseas grosses will probably rival, and possibly surpass, the film's domestic take.
The first weekend of May has been particularly strong for superhero movies the last two years, with "Iron Man" opening to $98.6 million last year and "Spider-Man 3" to $151.1 million in 2007.
"Wolverine" will certainly fall short of both those marks and might not even match the second "X-Men" movie, which opened to $85.6 million on the first weekend of May 2003. Given ticket price inflation of more than 20% in the last six years, that would indicate a significant drop in interest in the franchise.
Although "Wolverine" is the overwhelming choice for men, especially young ones, it will face some competition for women from "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. "Ghosts" is likely to gross close to $20 million, a bit higher than last year's summer-opening romantic comedy "Made of Honor," which opened with $14.8 million.
With no other romantic comedies on the horizon, the $50-million-plus production from Warner Bros.' New Line label could play strongly through May while the big-budget movies try to take each other down.