Following Iron Man 2's super-heroic box office this weekend, Hollywood seems poised for a record summer. Peter Lauria on the familiar franchises, from Shrek to The Karate Kid, to come.
Five billion dollars. Seventeen weeks. A race against time. Sounds like the plot of some global bank heist caper, but Hollywood's box office target this summer, a fantastical financial milestone that might be feasible now that Iron Man 2 set the pace this past weekend, coming out of the blocks with a $134 million opening, not enough to overtake The Dark Knight for biggest debut ever, but large enough to land in the top five. The Marvel Entertainment-produced, Paramount Pictures-distributed sequel is well on its way to $250 million in gross ticket sales, one of four films, along with Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, and Twilight: Eclipse, likely to reach that plateau this summer.
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" Iron Man 2 is a vitally important part of the summer movie season because it sets the stage for what is yet to come," says Hollywood.com box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "The momentum of the season starts here and a strong kickoff creates dividends for the entire industry in terms of positive public perception of movie-going and a box-office ripple effect that may carry over to each successive film."
Dergarabedian predicts that the higher ticket prices from 3-D movies, the reliable performance of sequels—of which there are nine slated for release this summer—and some sleeper hits will drive the box-office gross above $5 billion by the season's traditional Labor Day close.
It wasn't too long ago that $4 billion was considered an unreachable threshold for the summer. In fact, it was only in 2006. But Hollywood first passed that mark in 2007 on its way to three consecutive record-setting summers, ending with last year's $4.3 billion haul. Even if this year's take falls short of $5 billion, it will certainly best 2009 and set a new record. (Last year's total box-office gross of $10 billion set a new record for the entire year.)
Higher ticket prices are fueling the box-office gains.
As film industry financial analyst Hal Vogel notes, however, the increase in box-office gross doesn't mean more people are going to the movies. Quite the contrary: Movie theater attendance has essentially flat-lined in recent years, even as the total population has crept up.
Higher ticket prices are fueling the box-office gains. The average price for a movie ticket in 2002 was $5.80, according to data supplied by Hollywood.com. Last year it was $7.45. In this year's first quarter the average movie ticket price increased another 50 cents to $7.95, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. A 3-D ticket is even pricier, costing as much as $12.
That dynamic—few customers paying more—is a dangerous long-term trend. Studios are desperate to get people away from their computers, and into theaters, which is why the summer season is so important, with 40 percent of the year's entire box-office gross generated over these 17 weeks.
Studios typically play it safe during the summer, when school is out, sticking to proven franchises, bankable stars, and lighter fare that will appeal to a broad cross-section of moviegoers. In the next three months, a lot of familiar faces—both real and animated—will be turning up on the silver screen. There's Russell Crowe in Robin Hood, Shrek, the girls from Sex and the City, a Karate Kid reboot, the return of Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in Toy Story, those lovable vampires from Twilight, and Leonardo DiCaprio in Chris Nolan's Inception.
"The lack of originality is stunning," Dergaradebian says in reference to the nine sequels on tap for this summer. "But the audience plays a part in that. They are more comfortable spending money on something they know than something they don't."
While summer and blockbuster have become synonymous, the season can also be counted on to produce one or two sleeper hits. Last year, sci-fi picture District 9 rode online and word-of-mouth buzz to $115 million in box-office gross and a Best Picture nomination. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds reminded audiences of the inconsistent brilliance of both him and the film's producer, Harvey Weinstein.
Dergarabedian thinks campy horror flick Machete, from Tarantino's sometimes-partner Robert Rodriquez, and Inception could be this year's District 9 and Inglourious Basterds, respectively.
Guess we'll find out in 17 short weeks.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.