Originally created 09/08/06

Summer hits prove Hollywood's not dead



LOS ANGELES - The Hollywood hand-wringing of 2005 has been forgotten. After a dismal box-office year and gloomy prophecies about its future, the movie business has rebounded with a solid - though far from spectacular - summer season.

Led by one of the biggest all-time hits, Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Hollywood will have rung up about $3.85 billion in domestic ticket sales from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, up 6.3 percent from the same period last year, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. Factoring in higher ticket prices, movie attendance was up about 3.1 percent.

"If every year were like this, it would be fine," said Paul Dergarabedian, the president of Exhibitor Relations. "Hollywood will take solid over slump any day."

For summer 2005, revenues declined 8.5 percent and attendance tumbled 11.4 percent compared to 2004's.

This summer's revenues will come in about 2 to 3 percent below those of 2004, a strong box-office season. This summer's attendance will be down about 8 percent compared to 2004's.

Last year brought continual bad headlines as the flop of the week hit theaters, with Hollywood's overall revenues down weekend after weekend. Analysts theorized that home theaters and other personal entertainment options were undermining cinema business.

"The great thing this year is it seemed like audiences found a picture they wanted to see every week and sometimes two. That didn't happen last year," said Jeff Blake, the vice chairman at Sony, which had summer hits with Tom Hanks' The Da Vinci Code and Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. "Clearly, there were some weekends last year where people would say, 'Let's not go to the movies.'"

The opposite happened this year as most big films delivered, pulling in steady audiences. Overall movie revenues were up 14 out of 17 weekends this summer.

"I truly believe the axiom that lines beget lines. When you're on a roll, everything positive happens to you," said Chuck Viane, the head of distribution at Disney, which released Pirates of the Caribbean and had a blockbuster with the animated comedy Cars.

"Last year, there was so much negative spin in the press and the minds of people, I think it created a mind-set. This year, everything started positive and it's continued straight through."

Pirates of the Caribbean raced past $400 million domestically, only the seventh movie to top that mark. Cars, X-Men: The Last Stand and The Da Vinci Code all made it past $200 million, with Superman Returns at $196 million and creeping toward that level.

The first big-screen adventure for the Man of Steel since 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman Returns drew huge audiences, but box-office analysts had expected it to do better considering how well other elite superhero franchises have done, such as Spider-Man and X-Men.

Another underachiever was Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible III, which took in a respectable $133 million but fell far short of the 1996 original ($181 million) and 2000's sequel ($215 million). Fans apparently were turned off by Mr. Cruise's schoolboy antics in his romance with Katie Holmes and his religious preaching on Scientology.

Unlike summer 2005, this season produced only a few outright flops, mainly the family flicks Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and The Ant Bully and Uma Thurman's comedy My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

A few films pulled in bigger audiences than expected, among them Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's romance The Break-Up, and Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway's office comedy The Devil Wears Prada, both $100 million hits.

Smaller, independent-minded movies brought in viewers looking for more adult fare, including Al Gore's global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, the road-trip black comedy Little Miss Sunshine, and Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti's period piece The Illusionist.

"Moviegoing is still a great American pastime. When movies are appealing enough, people still are willing to go out and see them," said Steve Gilula, the chief operating officer at Fox Searchlight, which released Little Miss Sunshine. "I think the public is more selective than ever. But the quality of movies this summer shows they still like going out to the theater."