It wasn't that long ago that Hollywood regarded Memorial Day weekend as the start of the summer box-office season, but in recent years blockbuster numbers for pictures such as "Spider-Man" and "Shrek" have informed the studios and distributors that the marketplace is ready to support big-event pictures -- tent poles, as they are called -- earlier in the season.
That's why Twentieth Century Fox staked out May 19 as the premiere date for George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith." The picture is the Hollywood equivalent of the 800-pound gorilla that sits anywhere it wants to -- and the other studios have determined that it would not be productive to open any other movies that weekend.
Rather than hold off on big releases until "Star Wars" is ready to share box-office space, two studios this year have seen fit to get the unofficial summer season started on the last weekend in April -- with two major projects getting wide release. Disney is rolling out "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" at more than 3,100 theaters, and Sony is releasing "xXx: State of the Union" at close to 3,500 locations.
Paramount Pictures had success on the last weekend in April in 2004, when it opened "Mean Girls" -- and took in $24.4 million.
"Hopefully, we'll rewrite the book to say summer starts the last week of April," Disney Distribution President Chuck Viane told Daily Variety.
The decision by Disney and Sony to follow suit this year seems to be about more than just kicking off the summer a bit early -- it may also be motivated by the disappointing performance of the box office up to this point in 2005. Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios, which produced "xXx: State of the Union" -- told Variety the box office could use a kick start.
"It's been a little sleepy," Sherak said. "We're trying to wake it up."
It's hard to explain why the box office is underperforming. There haven't been any glaring flops, and there have been a number of solid performers -- including "Hitch," "Robots," "Sin City," "Guess Who" and "The Pacifier." More recently, "The Amityville Horror," "The Interpreter" and "Sahara" have all posted strong opening numbers -- but still, the box office has been in a slump for more than two months, with total ticket sales lagging behind comparable 2004 numbers for the past nine weekends.
The final weekend in April is establishing a reputation, though, as an increasingly lucrative box-office opportunity. Variety noted that grosses for the comparable weekend have risen steadily in each of the past three years -- from $61.5 million in 1999 to $86 million in 2002 to $103 million last year.
While fans and exhibitors wait for "Star Wars" to arrive, the release calendar holds some promise in the interim.
May 6 will see the release of Warner Bros.' "House of Wax" and Fox's costume epic "Kingdom of Heaven." The following weekend will see the release of Universal's new Will Ferrell soccer comedy "Kicking and Screaming"; the Jennifer Lopez-Jane Fonda pairing in New Line's "Monster-in-Law"; and the Jet Li-Morgan Freeman drama "Unleashed."
In the wake of "Star Wars," the list of anticipated movies filling out the rest of the summer schedule includes Adam Sandler in Paramount's remake of the Burt Reynolds' hit "The Longest Yard"; another all-star voice cast from DreamWorks in the animated feature "Madagascar"; the teaming of Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger in director Ron Howard's Universal release "Cinderella Man"; and the pairing of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie -- already well-chronicled by the tabloid press -- in Fox's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."
And that's just the warm-up, leading up to the June 15 opening of Warner Bros.' "Batman Begins" -- followed on June 29 by Paramount's Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise take on "War of the Worlds" and on July 8 by Fox's "Fantastic Four."
Although the summer box-office season seems to begin a little earlier each year, Hollywood does not yet seem to have figured out a way to keep the season from petering out during the weeks leading up to Labor Day. For now, though, Sherak said he'll take an early start to the summer.
"The truth of the matter is the right movie that spurs the public to go to the movies can go anywhere," he said. "I wish the summer could start on March 1."
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